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Bologna is the capital of the region of Emilia Romagna, which, along with the regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche to the south, constitutes the singular geography of socialist history, political thought and culture in Italy. For the millions of visitors that arrive there annually, its food, fashion and art, along with its stunning landscapes, conjure up images of beauty and quality of life that is, for Restakis, the envy of the world. And so it should be. Few regions have blended economic prosperity, natural and architectural beauty and rich cultural endowment with such enchanting effect.

But the blessings that have been so much part of this place have been hard won through a bitter and protracted struggle for political power that 60 years ago had severed the region, and Italy itself, in two. Divided by the political fault lines of left and right, socialism and fascism, Italy was in the grip of a national schism whose repercussions are still being played out. Nowhere did this struggle have a more lasting and surprising outcome than in Bologna and Emilia Romagna.

Emilia Romagna is Italy's most prosperous region and Bologna amongst its most wealthiest and best governed cities. The per capita income of the region's residents is the country's highest, unemployment is the nation's lowest, the distribution of wealth the most egalitarian, and its products – amongst the world's most coveted brands – account for the second highest proportion of Italy's total exports. This is the home of Ferrari cars and Ducati motorcycles, of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham, and of the 400,0000 small, bustling firms that flourish in this economic hot-house. At the foundation of this economic powerhouse and a key reason for its success is the world's most successful and sophisticated co-operative economy.

Collectively, 8,000 cooperative enterprises account for 40 per cent of the region's GDP. Most are small to medium sized, but the larger ones belong to the Lega di Cooperative e Mutue (the Federation of Cooperatives and Mutual Societies) or "Lega" as it is best known. The Lega is one of the three main co-operative federations which, like most everything else in Italy, are historically associated with one or other of Italy's political parties. The Lega was the first to be formed and the biggest, with its roots in the socialist movement and in particular the former Communist Party of Italy (CPI). The second largest cooperative, is associated with the Christian Democratic Party and the Catholic Church. AGCI (Associazione Gruppe di Cooperative Imprese) is aligned with the liberal and republican political tradition.

By the first decade of the 19th century unemployment, landless labour, growing militancy and an uncompromisingly hostile attitude on the part of commercial farmers combined to turn the farmlands of Emilia Romagna and Italy into battlefields of a rural class war. The co-operatives that were formed in this era were instruments of social and political revolution, but also a means of pooling labour and securing scarce employment for landless workers. The co-operatives of northern Italy, meanwhile, are more than just commercial enterprises. They are social and cultural institutions, for Restakis, that grew out of revolutionary ferment. After the devastation of the Second World War, the co-operatives were a central part of the larger political struggle to rebuild Italy along socialist lines. The Communist and Social Democratic parties spearheaded the effort throughout Italy and land reform was an essential part of it.

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