Antonio Gramsci, the Lega Nord, and Italy’s Southern Question

85 years after Antonio Gramsci issued his call for solidarity between the northern working class and the southern peasantry in Italy, the Italian regional elections of March 2010 were a testament to the ever-growing appeal of precisely the opposite platform. The Lega Nord, a party in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling right wing coalition whose platform is built on winning federal autonomy—if not outright independence—for northern Italy, stormed to prominence and power in Italy’s most industrial and developed northern regions. In Veneto, the Lega Nord took 35 percent of the vote, outdrawing even Berlusconi’s party by over 200,000 votes and establishing itself as the region’s most popular party. In Lombardy, Italy’s most populous region, the Lega Nord was the second most popular, while in Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont—home to Gramsci’s Turin Communists—it was the third.[i]

Together, these four regions (out of Italy’s 20) are responsible for half of Italy’s gross domestic product and are home to over a third of its population.[ii] With the lone exception of Lazio, the capital region in central Italy, they monopolize the country’s industrial production and international commerce. As was true in Gramsci’s Italy, agriculture remains the basis of the economy of the south but comprises a decreasing proportion of Italy’s overall GDP, declining to two percent in 2006.[iii] In all, Italy remains mired in the same polarization Gramsci described, between the agrarian south and industrial north.

The rise of the Lega Nord, long a minor party relegated to filling out coalitions in Italy’s notoriously unstable parliament, represents the increasing politicization of this economic divide. The party bills itself in full as the Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza di Padania—their name for the autonomous nation they hope to carve out of northern Italy. And after spending two decades subordinate to Italy’s two major parties—Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà and the center-left opposition Partito Democratico—the size of the Lega Nord’s support in the 2010 regional elections constitutes arguably its largest electoral success since its founding in 1991.[iv]

The party’s growing popularity has accompanied a shift in its platform from demands for complete independence to its present campaign for constitutional reform that would grant federal autonomy to the Padanian regions.[v] The popular appeal of this core program explains much of the Lega Nord’s recent growth—one poll from June 2010 places support for federalism among northern Italians at 80 percent.[vi]

But according to the same poll, 61 percent of northern Italians support outright secession, and the Lega Nord’s rhetoric remains unabashedly pro-independence. Its “Dichiarazione di Indipendenza e Sovranità della Padania,” featured prominently on the party’s website, takes its preamble verbatim from the United States Declaration of Independence, appropriating Thomas Jefferson’s famous assertion of the “Diritto Naturale di Autodeterminazione,” the natural right of self-determination. Like its American predecessor, the document proceeds to list the Lega Nord’s grievances against the Italian state before an unambiguous conclusion that proclaims that “La Padania è una repubblica federale indipendente e sovrana”—“Padania is an independent and sovereign federal republic.” [vii]

Of the many grievances cited by the Lega Nord, one bears particular relevance for Gramsci’s analysis of “the southern question.” “Lo Stato italiano,” the Lega writes, “ha costretto con l’inganno I Popoli della Padania a soggiacere al sistematico sfruttamento delle risorse economico finanziarie prodotte dal lavoro quotidiano per sperperarle nei mille rivoli dell’assistenzialismo clientelare e mafioso del Mezzogiorno”—“The Italian state has tricked the people of Padania into yielding to the systematic exploitation of the financial resources produced by their daily labor so that it can waste them on the never-ending economic dependency of Southern Italy.”[viii]

This sentiment—that Southern Italy is a backwards economic deadweight dependent on the prosperity of the more modern Northern Italy—motivates much of the nationalist sentiment among the northern Italians who voted the Lega Nord into power. The irony from the Gramscian perspective, though, is that Gramsci and the Turin Communists prescribed a similar economic dependency as their proposed solution to the “southern question,” and they saw this dependency as an expression of cross-regional solidarity rather than a cause of nationalistic loathing.

Gramsci summarizes the platform of the Turin Communists, which is predicated on the “Northern proletariat” taking the initiative to “emancipate the Southern peasant masses.” Quoting from an article issued by the Turin Communists, Gramsci writes, “The proletariat will orient industry to the production of agricultural machinery for the peasants, clothing and footwear for the peasants, electrical lighting for the peasants…The proletariat will provide the peasants with credit, set up cooperatives, guarantee security of person and property against looters and carry out public works of reclamation and irrigation.”[ix]

The Turin Communists are explicit in stating that these are not luxuries for the Southern peasantry; they are prerequisites for advancing beyond mere subsistence. Paralleling their list of northern provisions for the south, they add, “Without machinery, without accommodation on the place of work, without credit to tide him over till harvest-time, without cooperative institutions to acquire the harvest…what can a poor peasant achieve?” There is no discussion of any material reciprocation for northern Italy’s industrial contribution to southern welfare, only the assurance that winning the solidarity of the southern peasantry would prevent the overthrown northern bourgeoisie from using the south as a “military base for capitalist counterrevolution.”[x]

Gramsci thus shares with the Lega Nord a markedly similar analysis of the regionally divided nature of Italy’s economy—one that notes the reliance of the agrarian south on the industrial production of the north without much tangible economic benefit provided in return. Gramsci argues that the northern proletariat should accept such a relationship in the name of working class solidarity. The Lega Nord, meanwhile, sees it as a justification for northern secession.

The party’s electoral success—along with polls demonstrating the widespread popular demand for federalism or secession—show that this difference is not attributable to bourgeois support for the Lega Nord; its base includes the same industrial proletariat that Gramsci hoped would rally to the support of the south. Why, then, this failure of class solidarity?

Gramsci provides an answer in his identification of the Turin Communists’ “first problem,” the necessity of overcoming the culturally hegemonic ideas propagated by the northern bourgeoisie in an effort to preclude empathy and solidarity between the two formations of the working class—the northern proletariat and southern peasantry. He writes, “It is well known what kind of ideology has been disseminated in myriad ways among the masses in the North, by the propagandists of the bourgeoisie: the South is the ball and chain which prevents the social development of Italy from progressing more rapidly; the Southerners are biologically inferior beings, semi-barbarians or total barbarians, by natural destiny; if the South is backward, the fault does not lie with the capitalist system or with any other historical cause, but with Nature, which has made the Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric.”[xi]

The notion of the south as a “ball and chain” is obviously reminiscent of the Lega Nord’s depiction of southern Italy’s “never-ending economic dependency,” but it is Gramsci’s focus on the prevalence of racialized discourses of perceived biological difference that unwittingly presages the xenophobia—unforeseeable at the time of Gramsci’s writing—that today provides the cultural basis for northern Italians’ antipathy towards the south.

The ethnically Italian southern peasant has been joined in the northern Italian imagination by the undocumented—and often Muslim—African immigrant. These migrants, who arrive from North Africa by boat, provide the new agricultural labor force for southern Italy.[xii] But they also provide easy fodder for the Lega Nord’s platform, which, despite the ample economic polarization between northern and southern Italy, has emphasized above all else the threat of immigration to the northern Italian identity.

One of the party’s most notable legislative victories was the 2002 passage of the Bossi-Fini Act, which mandates that the state only grant visas to applicants with an preexisting contract to work in Italy, effectively outlawing African immigration.[xiii] The party’s campaign posters suggest that immigrants will overrun the Italian population, depicting a Native American alongside the words “L’Immigrazione—Ora vivono nelle riserve!”—“Immigration—Now they live on reservations!”[xiv] And the party’s leader, Umberto Bossi of immigration law fame, notoriously called for the Italian navy to fire on incoming boats full of African immigrants.[xv]

The Lega Nord’s nativist messaging coincides with the general anxiety prevalent in Italy—as in much of Western Europe—over the cultural impact of non-European immigration. One major controversy, for instance, erupted in the early 2000s over a lawsuit brought by a Muslim immigrant from Egypt that sought to ban crucifixes from Italian public school classrooms, inciting a public debate that revealed the extent of Italian suspicion of the cultural intent and impact of foreigners.[xvi]

This national anxiety over the racial demographics of the immigrant population adds a significant complicating factor to northern frustration over the economic dependency of the south. The dependency is not viewed as a simple case of uneven development or as a distinction between industrial and agrarian regional economies that grew as functions of geography and history. Instead, as Gramsci argues, the racial factor enables northern Italians to attribute the south’s economic dependency to the fundamental nature and character of its people—once the peasantry, now African immigrants.

Northern Italian ire, however, has not simply shifted with the times from one bogeyman to another. Significantly, northern Italians, often encouraged by the Lega Nord, have seized upon notions of identity that herd southern Italians and African immigrants into the same maligned racial categories. African immigrants have been seamlessly integrated into the same supremacist narratives that were reserved for southern Italians in the centuries before mass immigration, while the original targets have been granted no reprieve. In other words, under the current racist discourses emanating from northern Italy, Africans and southern Italians are one and the same, one race meriting one racist condemnation.

The unification of southern Italians and African immigrants within one racial group is most apparent in the derogatory colloquialisms popular among northern Italians. “Terrone,” which Gregory Pell defines as an “agrarian rube, synonymous with a subaltern human being,” has long been a common epithet for southern Italians—Pell places its emergence in the 1950s, well before African immigration to Italy had become a major social concern.[xvii] “The term,” Pell writes,” implies backwardness and primitiveness…it alludes to a notion of the South being a third-world culture, as compared to the first-world industrial society of northern Italy.”[xviii]

Echoing through this definition, of course, is Gramsci’s apt description, quoted above, of northern perceptions of southern inferiority. Though he did not know it, Gramsci was summarizing an attitude that would, a century later, be condensed entirely into “terrone.

In recent years, though, northern Italians have cast a wider net with their use of “terrone,” which is now commonly understood to include African immigrants along with native southern Italians.[xix] The agrarian roots of the slur eased the expansion of the sense of who is a “terrone,” given that immigrants have primarily taken up agricultural work in the south, but the subhuman connotations of the word, as Pell writes, have always been unmistakable. Thus, the use of “terrone” to denote both southern Italians and African immigrants serves to combine to two groups into one category of racial inferiority, that of the lazy and regressive agrarian hick.

Reinforcing this unification, northern Italians have taken to referring to the old “terroni,” natives of southern Italy, as “africani”—Africans—a usage promoted in particular by the Lega Nord.[xx] Taken together, these two linguistic developments demonstrate that both southern Italians and African immigrants have been inducted into existing racist frameworks—they have become, in the eyes of northern Italy, one inferior race. “Vis-à-vis the first world (the industrialized North),” Pell argues, “the so called third-world terroni (i.e., southern Italy) and the extracomunitari [African immigrants]…share a common marginalization.”[xxi]

This process is abetted by the Lega Nord’s efforts to propagate a new racial consciousness in northern Italy under which northern Italians self-identify not as Italian, but as Celtic. While southern Italians, according to the Lega, are the descendants of Mediterranean societies, primarily the Greeks and Etruscans, the inhabitants of what would be Padania claim Germanic, northern European ancestry.[xxii] The Lega then invokes these racial distinctions to explain the economic disparities between northern and southern Italy, citing Padanian inheritance of the Celtic Protestant work ethic in contrast to southern “Mediterranean” sloth.[xxiii]

Crafting an identity that separates themselves from the rest of Italy allows the Lega Nord and other northern supremacists to cast the divide as Celtic Northerners against all others, again unifying southern Italians and African immigrants within one racial framework, this time as ethnic Italians (as opposed to ethnic non-Italian Padanian Celtics.) But more importantly, the Lega’s focus on work ethic as a manifestation of race, when combined with the stereotypes of laziness contained in the language of “terrone,” unifies southern Italians and African immigrants as members of a constructed “Mediterranean” race that includes both southern Europe and the North African countries from which many immigrants originate, allowing the Lega Nord to claim a geographical basis for painting southern Italians and Africans with one brush. As a corollary, the work ethic discourse suggests that southerners and immigrants pose precisely the same threat to northern industriousness, further entrenching the sense that both groups constitute a single “other.”[xxiv]

This role of work ethic as a long-standing marker of racial difference in Italian society is how the solidarity relationships supported by Gramsci and the associated economic hierarchy inherent to such relationships produce the hatred and divisiveness on which the Lega Nord thrives rather than the working class cooperation Gramsci demanded. The economic inequalities between commercial north and agrarian south are perceived only as statements about the relative industriousness of the local population; other historical factors are not considered.

The incorporation of African immigrants into precisely the same racist narratives invoked for centuries against southern Italians, unifying southern Italians and African immigrants as a single “Mediterranean” race, suggests the ease of adapting old racism to new demographic realities, enabling the Lega Nord to conflate the continuity of a constructed North-South racial divide with the continu[xxv]ity of the material North-South economic divide. So long as economic inequity remains, then, the Lega Nord has demonstrated that it will be able to frame that inequity as a consequence of irreparable racial characteristics no matter who is actually targeted by their bias, giving northern Italians and the Lega Nord a perpetual justification for both their economic superiority and their calls to abandon the perpetually useless, burdening south.


[i] “Archivio Storico delle Elezioni – Regionali del 28 Marzo 2010,” Ministero dell’Interno, accessed October 22, 2010, http://elezionistorico.interno.it/index.php?tpel=R&dtel=28/03/2010.

[ii] “Regional GDP per inhabitant in the EU27,” European Union, accessed October 22, 2010, http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=STAT/09/23.

[iii] “Rapporto Statistico 2007 – I settori produttivi,” Regione del Veneto, accessed October 22, 2010, http://statistica.regione.veneto.it/Pubblicazioni/RapportoStatistico2007/Capitolo01b.jsp

[iv] “Archivo Storico,” Ministero dell’Interno.

[v] “Federalismo Fiscale,” Lega Nord, accessed October 22, 2010, http://www.leganord.org/homepage/doc/Federalismo/default.asp

[vi] “Trendsetting/Sondaggio Swg-Affaritaliani.it,” Affaritaliani.it, accessed October 22, 2010, http://www.affaritaliani.it/politica/padania_sondaggio_swg_secessione250610.html.

[vii] “Dichiarazione di Indipendenza e Sovranità della Padania,” Lega Nord, accessed October 22, 2010, http://www.leganord.org/ilmovimento/momentistorici/venezia_settembre96.pdf.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Antonio Gramsci, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” Quintin Hoare, trans., http://www2.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/archive/gramsci/1926/10/southern_question.htm.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Italy to Step Up Fight Against Illegal Immigration,” Voice of America, accessed October 22, 2010, http://www.voanews.com/english/news/europe/Italy-to-Step-Up-Fight-Against-Illegal-Immigration-81256507.html.

[xiii] “Immigrazione, la legge Bossi-Fini punto per punto,” La Repubblica, accessed October 22, 2010, http://www.repubblica.it/online/politica/improntedue/scheda/scheda.html.

[xiv] Jeff Israely, “An Italian Town’s White (No Foreigners) Christmas,” Time, December 1, 2009, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1943676,00.html.

[xvi] Umberto Eco, “Essere laici in un mondo multiculturale,” La Repubblica, October 29, 2003, http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/2003/10/29/essere-laici-in-un-mondo-multiculturale.html.

[xvii] Gregory Pell, “‘Terroni di mezzo: Dangerous physiognomies,” in From Terrone to Extracomunitario, ed. Grace Russo Bullaro (Leicester, UK: Troubadour, 2010), 179.

[xviii] Ibid., 180.

[xix] Ibid., 181.

[xx] Ibid., 179.

[xxi] Ibid., 181.

[xxii] Euan Hague, Benito Giordano and Edward H. Sebesta, “Whiteness, multiculturalism and nationalist appropriation of Celtic culture: the case of the League of the South and the Lega Nord,” Cultural Geographies 12 (2005):164.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid., 165.

One Response to Antonio Gramsci, the Lega Nord, and Italy’s Southern Question

  1. Nicodemo Mercurion says:

    Perhaps a more attenttive study of Italian history might have restrained the author’s propensity to write nonsensical caricatures of Italians: North and South. As for Gramsci, serious historians dismissed his nonsense about southern backwardeness as a the ravings of a self-taught amateur at best. Why not at least read Croce’s “Histyory of the Kingdom of Naples” and then move on to the writings of Gaetano Salvemini….

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