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Earlier on in this chapter, the initial development of base communities in Italy—even if they did not yet regularly employ this particular designation— was brought up to the late sixties. It was the flashpoint year of 1968 which saw the first serious efforts under way to provide a national framework to this ebullient movement of grassroots activists outside of the traditional structures of the church—and the organized Left! The term most frequently employed in 1967-8 to describe this welter of local initiatives was gruppi spontanei. As a category of analysis, strictly speaking, it incorporated Catholic and secular groups, as well as any number of possible combinations of Catholic and secular (mostly Marxist) activists working within one and the same spontaneous group.

An extraordinary, scholarly assessment of this bewildering wealth of youthful activists attempting to stake out their own path in life in the course of 1968 can be gleaned in a sociological research project, funded by the Left Catholic Fondazione Olivetti, in which a number of young activist academics cut their teeth, who later emerged as leading historians, journalists, and sociologists in their own right, such as Guido Romagnoli, Bruno Manghi, Lidia Menapace, Ettore Rotelli, and Franco Rositi. In an uncanny coincidence of timing, this team of researchers associated with the journal Questitalia decided in late 1967 to engage in a social scientific study of this milieu of gruppi spontanei, which was then quickly becoming the talk of the town throughout Italy. They first drew up a list of gruppi spontanei throughout the entire country. In the end, they selected 312 individual groups for further study by means of a series of detailed questionnaires. The bulk of their case studies were carried out between April and October 1968. Then a smaller sample of fifty of these groups was selected for yet more detailed investigations, including lengthy interview sessions with members of this smaller set of groups. The product is a unique and highly unusual snapshot of a vibrant and constantly shifting array of grassroots organizations precisely during a time of near-constant and hectic activism.[1]

The sociologists had early on decided to solely focus on those groups which had sprung up independently of mainstream political parties or the network of official church associations, such as Catholic Action. As the political dimension of their activities was central to the concerns of the researchers, communities which exclusively focused on ecclesial reform were excluded from their sample, but so were, for instance, groupings belonging to the sprawling network of Far Left groups, which often had emerged out of this magma of gruppi spontanei just months before the sociologists’ research efforts got under way. To ensure the focus on the organizational independence and autonomy of each studied group, local chapters of the loose association of activists forming the influential Movimento Studentesco were removed from their sample as well. The idea was to cast a light on the inner life and the political orientation exclusively of such associations as were truly without ties to any larger organization. And the team of authors noted that, given the fluid period of transition during which the research happened to be carried out, by the time the book was written—the foreword is dated May 1970—many of the groups no longer existed or had changed character, which would no longer have warranted some of the groups being included in their sample, had the research commenced only then. In essence, all groups targeted carried out political work, most also devoted significant chunks of time to ecclesial issues, but none of them were exclusively oriented towards ecclesial issues only.

This extraordinary still photo of an activist world in motion provides rich data for a whole range of observations going far beyond the fledgling Catholic base communities. Thus, as the extremely fluid peculiarities of this phase in the genesis of the Italian Far Left would have it, while the Movimento Studentesco, itself thriving on its plurality of represented views and an oftentimes extremely decentralized organizational structure, was excluded, the first shoots of what eventually became Avanguardia Operaia or Potere Operaio, later on mainstays of the Italian Far Left, were then still included. But what makes the research of the Fondazione Olivetti particularly fruitful for a glimpse at Catholic grassroots communities in 1968 is the fact that a significant majority of the 312 groups studied belonged to the Catholic fold. Of all surveyed groups 44.5 per cent were Catholic, a further 15.1 per cent consisted of Catholics and non-Catholic Marxists, leaving a mere 17.7 per cent of nonCatholic ‘pure’ Marxist groups and a further 3.5 per cent non-Marxist secular groups. In 17.3 per cent of the case studies, the ideological origins of the group were listed as imprecise. In short, the bulk of the sample consisted of Catholic local autonomous groups, i.e. precisely the milieu which would—in hindsight—be best described as Christian—or mixed Christian and secular— base communities.

What emerges from the fascinating observations is a teeming world of largely Catholic activists who were then attempting to change their world, trying to seize the day, often in open or latent conflict with the local or regional church hierarchies, but frequently aided by the lowest rung of the clerical hierarchy, parish priests. By virtue of inclusion in the samples studied, all Catholic groups engaged in a mixture of ecclesial and political or social action. As the range of such activities has been amply described in preceding pages, I will merely concentrate on that aspect of the sociologists’ findings, where an effort was made to compare and contrast Catholic and non-Catholic (usually secular Marxist) groups. And it is here where the most interesting and astounding conclusions came to the fore.

Though the activities of both secular and religious groups increasingly tended to converge over time—obviously leaving aside explicitly ecclesial work carried out by the Catholic groups—Catholic groups in the sample consistently exhibited certain features distinct from their secular Marxist cohort. Catholic associations showcased a much lower level of internal stratification, with few attempts at a formalization of internal group functions, a division of labour, or the elaboration of statutes. Catholic groups had a far more pronounced penchant for the reliance on mechanisms of participatory democracy, whereas secular groups relied far more frequently on elements deriving from the tradition of democratic centralism—to be sure, the latter in the original format of its non-totalitarian heritage. For Catholics, concrete engagements in practical work played a much more central role than for the secular Marxist groups. For Catholics, the elaboration of a political line was usually a logical consequence of their empirical commitments; for the secular cohort, the relationship between theory and practice was often the reverse. Within Catholic groups, friendship networks and related networks of quotidian sociabilities played a much more prominent role as a common glue than in the non-Catholic sample. Last but not least, voluntarism was a key factor of Catholic groups in this sample, with personal and subjective responsibility the central motivator for the concrete involvement in their chosen practical tasks.

Any number of important conclusions may be drawn from the rich accumulation of data assembled by the Olivetti team. In the context of this chapter, I merely wish to underscore the elementary egalitarian impulse provided by this mass of youthful enthusiasts emerging out of the Catholic universe, which then obviously still exerted a powerful pull in Italy. The sociologists did note that the gruppi spontanei in northern metropolitan areas tended to see a disproportionate—given the relationship of forces in Italy as a whole— preponderance of non-Catholic informal communities of activists, which is highly evocative and relevant for the subsequent development of the post-1968 Italian Far Left. But the consequences of this ‘ominous’ evolution in the metropolitan centres of the Italian North will have to await elaboration in a future study of the Italian (and European) Far Left I aim to carry out. For the moment, having strongly underlined the social relevance of Catholic base communities in 1968, it is incumbent to draw a brief sketch of the first wave of serious attempts to construct a national network of such groups.

  • [1] All references in this subchapter originated in the book-length study by Franco Ferraresiet al., La politica dei gruppi. Aspetti dell’associazionismo politico di base in Italia dal 1967 al 1969(Milan: Comunita, 1970).
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