Italy: the Failure Of The Liberal State 1876-1914


In 1861 Italy was united under a Piedmontese king, Victor Emmanuel II. The creation of a unified Italian State (completed with the acquisition of Venetia in 1866 and the Papal States in 1871) is often ‘seen as the culmination of a series of developements stretching back to the first stirrings of nationalist sentiment in the the late 18th century’.1 Yet its creation occurred almost by accident and the Italy that was formed disappointed many of its makers. Cavour, Piedmontese Prime Minister, had only urged Victor Emmanuel to act for unification of all Italy when Garibaldi’s success threatened to unite Italy outside of Piedmont’s control and domination and on more radical terms than were acceptable. This meant that Italy was united in a rush with little consideration of the finer points of how this should happen; for example, whether Italy should be a single nation state or a federal body, monarchial or republican. As it was, Italy was united by force of Piedmontese arms and therefore Piedmont and the conservative Liberalism present there would dominate united Italy. This is what lies behind B.A. Haddock’s assertion that ‘from the very outset it [united Italy] was a hollow achievement.’2 The united Italy that was created was simply the ‘Piedmontese state writ large’, which to many nationalists, particularly the more radical was unacceptable. Piedmont had been allowed to triumph because, after the experience of 1848, most nationalists felt that constituitional and social issues should come second to the unification of Italy and its freeing from foreign domination. Many nationalists were disatisfied because political change had always been associated with social change and ‘economic and cultural renewal’ while the Piedmontese unification was essentially a conservative one ‘designed to accomplish far reaching political changes while preserving the social status quo.’3

Not only did the unification, as it occurred under the control of a narrow Piedmontese elite, enjoy little support among the nationalists, but it also was opposed by the Church (particularly after 1870 when Rome was taken over by the Italian state). This was significant because the Church was much closer to the people at large than the political elite, and the Church’s opposition to the new state meant it was deprived of an important popular legitmacy from the very outset. The Liberal political culture which dominated the new state further weakened its legitimacy and support by adopting wholesale Piedmontese law and administrative structures and even the Piedmontese constituition for the new Italy. For a country of such vastly differings regions all accustomed to different practices this was nothing short of disastrous. Coupled with the brutal suppression of civil unrest in the south in 1861-5 which was ‘to sour relations between the north and south for generations to come’4 it is not difficult to see why some of the central ‘themes [of] .. Italian history … since the Risorgimento [have been] the incapacity of the elites to establish their hegemony over the classes that lay below them [in fact Italians in general], the weakness and inefficiency of the state … [and] the enduring problem of the south.’5 It was the challenge to the Liberal state in this period to overcome all the handicaps with which it had been encumbered from the outset and to secure the support of Italians for Italy, to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people for the Liberal state. In this it failed, why and how is what I will discuss in the rest of this essay.

Coercion and Conciliation: The Liberal State 1876-1900

It was only when Agnostino Depretis became Prime Minister in 1876 that the new Liberal State began in any great way to coerce or reconcile the various groups opposed to the united Italy that had been created. Up to this point government had been in the hands of the Right, landowning northern aristocrats, who had done little to gain legitimacy for the new state and little to make Italians greater than vague nationalistic sentiments of ‘loving Italy’. The entrance of the Left, professional middlemen and politicians from the South, ushered in an era of low politics, where opposition was bought off, and that which couldn’t be was coerced.

In some ways Depretis’ 11 years in office were succesful. Large state spending particularly on the navy and railways helped to start Italy’s industrialisation and created an economic boom. The creation of a national railway infrastructure would obviously be a massive boost for national unity in such a diverse and geographically divided country. And if Italy were to become a modern nation state it had to move away from an agriculture dominated economy to a modern industrial one. However there were several problems. First the industrialisation in this perod (1876-1887) further exacerbated the north-south divide with the south actually losing industry (e.g. the silk industry). Second the industrialisation failed to take off and in fact after 1887 the Italian economy entered its ‘darkest years.’ This reversal coupled with free trade, which had been terrible for landowners, led to the adoption of protection in a major way in 1887 which not only did great damage to the Italian economy in the short term but was a measure which favoured certain small interest groups against the population at large. Protection had in large part been demanded by landowners who were being hit by the Europe wide agricultural depression, and again Depretis only satisfied a small but politically powerful group. The peasants particularly in the south had actually suffered from unification through the combination of removal of large tariff barriers, the selling off of demesne land which simply resulted in the loss of communal grazing rights for the peasants, the imposition of large land taxes, and harsh suppression of any popular unrest. Thus in agricultural and industrial affairs Depretis’ term did lead to new groups being attached to the regime (namely southern middlemen and the new industrialists) but it stored up problems for the future in other areas and did not gain support from several major areas of the populace.

In other areas Depretis did even less. Education was one of the major areas in which the new state could act to try and make Italians. Most Italians could not speak the Italian language let alone write it. Outside of Tuscany and Rome it is estimated only 0.6% of the population knew Italian and in the 1881 census 61.9% of the population was illiterate. Not only that, these figures disguise the fact that literacy was also a major dividing factor in Italy, with the north in general far more literate than the south. Considering this, one would have thought that the government of the ‘Left’ would have made a large effort in the area of education. It did little. In 1877 primary education was made compulsory but only for two years which was probably inadequate, and the time was only raised to three years in 1888. Moreover compulsion was a sham: in the south it is estimated that truancy ran at 80%. Despite the intention of the ‘Liberal ruling class … to make Italians’ through state run schools ‘primary education enticed so few children into regular attendance that arguably it made little difference what was taught there.’6 The inabilility of most Italians to speak or read the national language was obviously a major impediment to ‘making Italians’ and gaining legitimacy for the national state. The fact that Depretis’ government did so little about the problem is a major failure in any attempt to solve the problems facing the Liberal Italian state.

The other major failing of the Depretis government was that its method of gaining legitimacy (and perhaps the only one in the face of so many opposing forces) was to buy off opposition and politicise the state. The Liberal state felt it could not give too much power away to instituitions over which it did not have control. Thus the police were often used for political purposes (to harry opponents of government candidates at elections) and their powers ‘were, at best, illiberal.’7 The judiciary was almost an entirely political instituition and it ‘did not form an independent branch of the State. They [judges] could not protect themselves, let alone anyone else from political abuses.’8 The state’s instituitions were corrupted into being political tools rather than backbones of a modern legitimate state, and the way these instituitions behaved could only further undermine support for it. Along with the distrust of local government by the central one and the large scale corruption on both local and national scales, and the narrow suffrage (widened in 1882 but still less 7% of the population) it is not surprising the government enjoyed little support from both the general populous and even some of the political classes.

The era of Depretis was the era of the integration of the southern deputies into the political system. Some other groups were also reconciled, for example some of the nationalists including Garibaldi, but many groups were not. With the extension of the vote in 1882, working men in the north could now vote and this would eventually mean the rise of a socialist party opposed to the Liberal state. Depretis failed also to reconcile the most important section of the opposition to the Italian state, namely the church. ‘The 1880s were the classic era of trasformismo, i.e. of governments led by Depretis ‘transforming’ opponents into supporters’9 but it was usually only the support of a small elite and it was not permanent support. In the end the governments of Depretis did little to contribute to the ‘legitimizing’ of the Italian state, their most important legacy was the corruption of parliamentary rule. Though perhaps given the nature of unification it was inevitable, ‘arguably it was better that governments should ‘buy off’ the Southern elites, rather than simply ignore them, or repress them. This was parliament’s real function in the new united Italy: to make Piedmontese rule acceptable elsewhere.’10

Depretis had focused on buying off elites, but the period 1887-1890 saw the rise of popular organisations opposed to the Liberal state which could not be bought off without endangering the whole Liberal edifice. This was in no small part due to Francesco Crispi who became Prime Minister on Depretis’ death in 1887. Crispi Prime Minister 1887-1891 and 1893-1896 was a crusader of the Liberal Right, determined ‘to abolish corruption, strengthen the executive, reinforce the army, defend Italy’s interests abroad and promote social reforms.’ But Crispi with little concern for the complexity of Italy, ‘succeeded mainly in disrupting the economy, endangering the whole Liberal regime, and provoking far more widespread and effective movements of political opposition.’11

One of the major problematical areas of this period was the economy. With the failing of the boom of the early 1880s the government came under pressure to impose tariffs. The two major groups who pushed for ‘protection’ were northern: ‘it was essentially a North Italian alliance of textile manufacturers and Po valley landowners.’12 The protectionists got what they wanted and in 1887 a new general tariff was introduced. But this was only half the story, since the general tariff did not apply to countries which had a trade treaty with Italy. France, Italy’s biggest trading partner, had a trade treaty but it expired in 1888. It was not renewed and in February of that year a trade war between Italy and France began, which was to prove disastrous for Italy. Not only was protectionism bad for the Italian economy but it had several other serious repercussions. The tariff war resulted in the removal of foreign investment from the country. This led to pressure on many banks which had overextended themselves in the earlier boom. Several banks failed and worse, as a result, the government allowed the six note-issuing banks, as a perk of bailing out smaller banks and finance houses, to print money. This resulted in 50 million lire of illegal currency being in circulation, but at the same time did little to save other banks. ‘At the end of 1893 the two largest credit instituitions in Italy, the Banca Generale and the Societa Generale di Credito Mobilare, closed their doors. These banks had financed industry, agriculture, commerce and railways as well as property and their fall was an economic disaster.’13 Even the Banca Romana, a note issuing bank, collapsed at the end of 1893. This was not so serious economically as politically. Banco Romana had been in trouble since the late 1880s and had solved its financial problems by simply printing money. In 1889 a report had been commisioned by Crispi which strongly condemned the bank’s practices, but the report was shelved because ‘many of the bank’s losses had been incurred from loans granted to tottering businesses favoured by the governments or politicians … [and] the Banca Romana, like other banks, had made large ‘loans’ to leading politicians, often without expecting any interest.’14 Eventually, though, Radicals managed to get hold of the report. The Banca Romana collapsed, and a new committee in November 1893 reported about the financial irregularities. More importantly the committee also named twenty-two deputies who had received ‘loans’ from the bank, including Giolitti, who at this point was Prime Minister. The Giolitti government resigned and Crispi, who had been let off by the committee, became prime Minister again. This was not all however. In December 1894 Giolitti handed over documents to the President of the Chamber which showed that not only had Crispi ‘borrowed’ money from the bank but so had his wife and relatives. Crispi did not resign but simply stalled. It was the defeat of the Italian army at Adowa by the Abyssinians (the first time a European army had been defeated by an African one), that finally brought Crispi down. The economic and colonial failures along with the domestic scandals of this period did not fatally weaken the Liberal state, but they continued to discredit it, particularly in their provocation of a more organised and vocal opposition. It is to the question of oppositon and the government’s method of dealing with it that I now turn.

This period saw the rise two major opposition groups to the Liberal state, -the Socialists and the Catholics- the golden age of radicalism/Republicanism and also two major popular insurrections. From the very beginning the Church had been opposed to the Italian state and particularly the anti-clerical Liberal one, but in the 1890s the church increased substantially in secular society, this was due to two factors. First the Liberal opposition to the Church intensified under Crispi and his successors, and the reform of the charities in 1890 in particular ‘made it even more vital for Catholics to gain or share control of local government’15. Second, the growth of Socialism was a profound threat to the Church, and one way for the Church to deal with it was to support its own social reform: ‘Papal Socialism’ was to combat ‘Red Socialism’0. This led to an increase in Catholic activity. For example a clerico-moderate alliance took over Milan in 1895, and ‘this was the great era of the ‘Opera’ [dei Congressi, the most important Catholic lay organisation].’ However the success of ‘social Catholicism’ led to problems. More and more Catholics felt an inevitable further step must be the relaxation of Pius IX’s ‘non expedit’ which had prohibited Catholics from taking part in the parliamentary (state) elections, but this presented difficulties: ‘As the ‘Opera’ became more lay and more ‘social’, it seemed likely to evolve into some kind of a political party. Yet if it did that , would the clergy and the hierachy be able to retain control of it?’ The success of the Catholic movement seemed also to threaten the Liberal regime. In 1897 di Rudini, the Prime Minister, decided to crack down, and Prefects were instructed to close down Catholic associations and journals. With the bread riots of 1898, and the participation of a small number of Catholics (e.g. Don Albertario) ‘the whole Catholic network of social, educational, and economic bodies, so laboriously built up over the previous decades, was crushed.’ Surprisingly the Church did not seem too distressed by the turn of events. In fact, ‘the persecution of 1897-98 ….[led] to traditional ‘intransigence’ [being] quietly dropped’. The Church was scared by the radicalism of its own and felt it more prudent to defend itself by allying with the Right-wing Liberals, ‘Catholic politics moved into an era of ‘clerico-moderate’ alliances at both national and local level; the Catholics threat had apparently been ‘absorbed’.’16

The other threat to the Liberal state came from the opposite of the spectrum to the conservative Church, namely the Socialists and the Radicals. Socialism, particuliarly in a grassroots form of local labour organisations had already begun before this period (POI), but there were many different groups all committed to different aims and ideologies. It is only with the national labour congress in 1892 in Genoa that an Italian Socialist Party was formed. The main problem it encountered throughout the 1890s was periodic repression by the state. In 1893-4 there had been widespread disturbances in Sicily by Socialist led Fasci. The disturbances were harshly put down by Crispi, Fasci leaders were sentenced to long terms, all workers’ associations were shut down, and Socialists were purged from the electoral roles. Moreover Crispi went further, in October 1894 he dissolved the Socialist party altogether, electoral roles were ‘amended’, and Socialist deputies were arrested. In 1897-8 it was again repressed by di Rudini, particularly after the widespread bread riots in 1898, and then by General Pelloux in 1899-1900. The result of all of this was to move the Socialists towards Radicals in demands for bourgeois liberties and reform as opposed to revolution, and despite all the government’s efforts ‘by 1898 the PSI was an important part of the coalition against the government.’17 While the Socialists represented the nascent populist party on the left, the Radicals while more significant in 1890s were on the way out. Nevertheless with the constant emphasis on the failings of the Liberal state and their fight for liberties the Radicals were significant, particularly in the way they influenced future leaders like Zanardelli. The Radicals were the intellectual opinion formers for the centre ground which included the left of the Liberals and the reformist right of the Socialists.

The 1890s had been an era of great turmoil for the Liberal state but what was the result? Strong government where parliament was disregarded and parties were banned with abandon was discredited. The elections of 1900 were a victory for the Left and the constituitional Liberals. At the same time many of the supposed subversive groups had been absorbed into the system - perhaps not altogether but now they were ‘the defenders of liberty and the Constituition, against many ‘conservative’ groups.’18 However there was a flip side to this in that there were now groups of the Right (who had become particularly vocal in the constituitional crisis of 1899-1900) who were opposed to the state in the form it existed. It was out of this ‘conservative’ disaffection fertilised with the memory of Adowa that the nationalists, the greatest threat to the Liberal state, would spring. Essentially the 1890s had been period where the government had bullied because it could not bribe, and despite the seeming reconciliation of some groups, the Italian state as it existed commanded little if any legitimacy in the eyes of Italians.

The Age of Giolitti 1900-1914

Giolitti was the great conciliator of the Liberal state, he wished to conciliate opposition groups, to reconcile real Italy to legal Italy, but ‘in the long run, his policies did not work.’19 Giolitti never resolved the fundamental problem of the Liberal state: that the Liberal elite was never willing to give up real power, and how was it to gain legitimacy if it did not. The people were to be ruled not taken seriously, Giolitti like all Liberals ‘had no wish to see fundamental political change, and certainly did not intend to allow the Socialist, of the Radicals, or the Catholics, or the Nationalists, any autonomous role in Italian politics. These groups -or rather, their leaders - had to be bought off’,20 not given equality within a democratic pluralistic system.

Giolitti was able to buy off so many groups in part because of the upturn in the Italian econcomy after 1896. Just as troubles in the 1890s had been associated with the depression after 1887 so the tranquility for the decade after 1900 is due in no small part to the improved economic conditions. Firstly the better state of the economy meant that employers were more willing to make concessions to workers, and in agriculture there would be no repetition of the bread riots of 1898. Secondly the state had more money, and for example could spend large amounts on relief for the South, ‘designed to promote economic growth or at least buy off unrest.’21 In the North the state subsidized much of heavy industry, particularly indirectly through Navy contracts etc. Unfortunately in the long term none of this was very good. The South despite subsidies was left behind by the North, further increasing the already dangerous divide. Subsidies and interference in the North meant that in ‘many leading sectors - steel, shipping, sugar - it was a handful of State-sponsored, tariff-protected, cartelized firms that succeeded; and they succeeded by virtue of their financial connections and their political weight.’22 In other words, major areas of the Italian economy were corrupt, inefficient and dependent on the state for their survival. All of this stored up trouble for the future (for example the steel industry now needed naval orders to survive and thus became a lobbyist for nationalist expansionism).

This was true of most other areas of Giolitti conciliation. He could reconcile groups temporarily with some titbit or other but could never permanently win their support. In fact often recconciling one group annoyed another one, ‘Giolitti was a good political juggler but even he could not keep all the balls in the air at once.’23 Perhaps most significantly, Giolitti’s conciliation throughout this period of the ‘Left’ eventually failed as worsening of economic conditions led to a hardening of line among Socialists, while at the same time alienating powerful groups on the Right (e.g. the landowners and industrialists.) Concession is also temporary, concessions lead to more concessions, and not only to the same groups, if one group gets concessions then all groups want them. Giolitti had other problems in that the period saw the rise of the nationalists, a group who could not be absorbed. The nationalists preying on Italians feeling of inferiority among the other European powers and memories of Adowa were extremely successful and with their tendency to right wing authoritarianism they presented a major threat to the Liberal state. With the widening of the suffrage in 1912 which meant the beginnings of a mass Catholic party the Liberal state seemed in dire straits. Giolitti was an extremely able politician but he solved none of the essential problems. In 1914 there was still no central constituitional (Liberal) party, and there were several parties which had little time for the Liberal state and despised democratic liberties. The end of Giolitti marked the end of the Liberal era - the Liberal state. After 1914 ‘most governments in Italy were either nationalist, or Catholic, or both’.24


This essay is entitled ‘The Failure of the Liberal State’. By this I meant that the Italy formed after 1861 -the Liberal state - failed to gained legitmacy for itself, failed to reconcile legal Italy and ‘real’ Italy, and thus failed to ensure the its own survival. In 1914 the divide between North and South was, if anything, worse, with the South still a agricultural semi-feudal society while the North industrialized. In the 1911 census 37% of Italians were still illiterate, and the proportion was massively higher in the South than in the North, and in the countryside as opposed to the towns. Italy remained a divided country with little agreement among Italians on ‘basic ideological, educational or social aims.’25 The Liberal state had bribed or bullied the people, never given them control. The country was still governed by a narrow elite with no legitimacy, which manipulated the people it despised. In the authoritarianism and failure of Liberal rule lay the rise of Fascism and modern Italy’s crisis.

  1. B.A. Haddock , ‘Italy: independence and unification without power’ in Themes In Modern European History, Ed. B. Waller (Routledge 1990). Pg. 92. [return]
  2. Ibid. Pg. 92. [return]
  3. Ibid. Pg. 93. [return]
  4. Ibid. Pg. 96. [return]
  5. P. Ginsborg, ‘A History Of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988’. (Penguin 1990). Pg. 2. [return]
  6. Martin Clark, ‘Modern Italy 1871-1982’. (Longman 1984). Pg. 38. [return]
  7. Ibid. Pg. 53. [return]
  8. Ibid. Pg. 54. [return]
  9. Ibid. Pg. 62. [return]
  10. Ibid. Pg. 66. [return]
  11. Ibid. Pg. 92. [return]
  12. Ibid. Pg. 94. [return]
  13. Ibid. Pg. 97. [return]
  14. Ibid. Pg. 98. [return]
  15. Ibid. Pg. 105. [return]
  16. Ibid. Pg. 108. [return]
  17. Ibid. Pg. 112. [return]
  18. Ibid. Pg. 117. [return]
  19. Ibid. Pg. 137. [return]
  20. Ibid. Pg. 136. [return]
  21. Ibid. Pg. 131. [return]
  22. Ibid. Pg. 32. [return]
  23. Ibid. Pg. 157. [return]
  24. Ibid. Pg. 159. [return]
  25. Ibid. Pg. 177. [return]