RENEWING ITALIAN SOCIALISM: NENNI TO CRAXI by Spencer M. Di Scala, New York: Oxford University Press, 336 pp. $39.95 CONSIDER this paradox. Americans delight in the culture, food, fashions, scenery, and sunlight of Italy. Yet they substitute clich'es about communism, Mussolini, and the Mafia for serious political assessment. And they use stereotypes about national character, the multiparty stalemate, and the fatalism of Luigi Barzini's ``The Italians.'' Italy's political and economic achievements deserve better.
So a welcome is due this scholarly history of modern Italian socialism, which has survived divisiveness and frustration since the 1920s to produce good national leadership under Bettino Craxi in this decade. How could a party for so long labeled a failure, its left wing seen as a communist tool, its right as a puppet of the Christian Democrats (and the CIA), suddenly - or so it seemed - emerge as a vigorous force?
Unfortunately, this book offers answers primarily to experts. It presents an old-fashioned, chronological skim of political tactics, rather than forces, trends, or ideas. It focuses on the ambitions and maneuvers of a few leaders, particularly Craxi and Pietro Nenni, the fellow-traveling Socialist of the early cold war.
Di Scala assumes detailed knowledge of Italy's transformation from the rural, desperately poor, and virtually third-world country of 1945 to the booming nation of today. The Socialists are a major force, while the Communists have abandoned revolution and violence, and the Christian Democrats are torn between the Vatican and secularism.
Political maneuver in Italy follows two tracks: ``an opening to the Left,'' or ``an opening to the Right.'' And every caf'e or family gathering includes an aficionado of such maneuvers. ``Do you know what Togliatti did then? I will tell you what he did:....'' Di Scala does much the same.
It's virtually a family saga, with everyone knowing who stands where on the political spectrum, with allies easily becoming adversaries, and vice versa. Di Scala offers little context or interpretation, while using initials - DC, PCI, PSI, etc., etc. - to identify the players.
Chronicling politics as a great game fails to explain how and why the game can turn deadly serious, as it did when Mussolini seized power in 1922, or terrorism arrived in the 1970s. The old pols are pushed aside and new leaders appear - Craxi in the late '70s, for example - who can deliver on their promises. Di Scala addresses maneuver, but not the forces at work behind the scenes.
Consider Nenni, whom the American press denounced as a Communist dupe (though William Colby's memoirs suggest the CIA was wiser). Di Scala mentions that Nenni treated the Communist/Socialist split of 1921 as a disaster, which opened the door to 20 years of Mussolini, and to Italy's devastation in the war. Hence Nenni fought hard after 1945 for leftist unity, to protect Italy's very fragile democracy from the authoritarian right, now allied with an anticommunist United States.
So Washington's pleas to fight communism above all else fell on deaf ears: Italians traumatized by history, and Americans ignorant of it, could do no better than a dialogue of the deaf.
So it is with Italian headlines about conspiracies, secret cliques, and would-be coups. Americans shrug these off as inconsequential in a modern democracy. Italians, remembering Mussolini in 1922, Greece in 1967, and Chile in 1973, do not: hence the occasional, excited calls for leftist unity - including the Communists - against ``the danger from the Right.''
Di Scala explains why this Italian reaction deserves attention, not patronizing remarks about the Latin character.