Fausto Gullo, Italy’s “Peasants’ Minister” Who Fought to Break Landowner Power

Italy's first postwar agriculture secretary, Fausto Gullo, was a Communist who used his office to redistribute land and give peasants control over their lives. His reforms promised to democratize the South's deeply unequal economy — only for conservatives to reassert the dead hand of landowner power.

Fausto Gullo alongside fellow ministers in Rome, 1946. (Ivo Meldolesi / Mondadori via Getty Images)

Exactly seventy-five years ago — on July 1, 1946 — Italy’s dominant Christian Democratic party fired the immensely popular Fausto Gullo, known throughout Southern Italy as the “people’s lawyer.” Over the years, Gullo had represented many peasants in these so-called mezzogiorno regions pro bono. For two years starting in April 1944, he served in national government as a boldly reforming agriculture secretary.

Gullo was appointed to that role at the end of the Fascist era, as part of a short-lived coalition uniting the Christian Democrats (DC) with the Communists (PCI) and Socialists (the PSI). These parties had formed a resistance alliance against Benito Mussolini’s government and the Nazis, but after 1945 their relationship fragmented as the Cold War set in. The US administration wanted both workers’ parties out of government — and DC chief Alcide De Gasperi saw to it that this aim was carried out.

A high-profile member of the PCI, Gullo had served in World War I and during Mussolini’s rise to power earned a reputation as an activist and anti-fascist figure. Appointed agriculture secretary in 1944, he introduced what would go down in Italian history as “Gullo’s Reforms.” This series of decrees handed peasants thousands of acres of agricultural land, redistributed from wealthy absentee landlords whose families had often been gifted this massive acreage to lubricate the complicated deals that completed national unification in the 1860s.

Gullo’s program enraged landlords — and he was soon replaced in this post by a wealthy Sardinian landowner, who worked hard at dismantling his popular measures. Nonetheless, pressed by relentless peasant demands across the South, the DC — now governing alone — was forced to introduce its own Land Reform Act in 1950.

This latter program was rather different in nature: it quickly came to be characterized by huge government handouts to the ruling party’s cronies, outsized patronage, and a phalanx of government intermediaries wielding heavy-handed DC influence on a local level. Over the next four decades, such intervention would continue to be called on to save the Southern economy, even as it lagged behind the industrializing North.

Draghi’s Problem

In February 2021, former European Bank chief and MIT PhD Mario Draghi became prime minister of an Italy bedeviled by a potent populist right and a politically hesitant, neoliberalized left. The DC along with the PCI disappeared in the early 1990s — also marking a change of economic paradigm in Southern Italy, away from the interventionist state.

In an article entitled, “New and Old in the Southern Question,” highly acclaimed environmental historian Piero Bevilacqua wrote that after continuous efforts to save the mezzogiorno, “in 1993 Parliament disposed of the last piece of legislative scaffolding around the extraordinary intervention in the South.” Noting the deep structural problems of deindustrialization and high unemployment, the Calabrian historian points out that “between 1951 and 1992, GDP in the mezzogiorno grew by over 550 percent . . . in all [its] long history . . . nothing similar has ever happened. […] It was a period of substantial commitment on the part of intellectuals and experts. […] During those years the South was transformed into a great ‘laboratory’ of social reforms.” The Bari university professor adds that from 1950 the South was “the object of two great attempts to pilot transformation from above: the agrarian reform and the Fund for the Mezzogiorno.”

Today, most of the mezzogiorno‘s peasants have disappeared. Many of their descendants have either permanently emigrated by the hundreds of thousands, or become service workers, often jobless and forced to look abroad for work. And while in 1996 Bevilacqua could write of the South’s recent decades of GDP growth, today the mezzogiorno is near the top of the serious problems for government to solve. For many commentators, the answer lies in the post-pandemic Next Generation EU funds, widely compared to the Marshall Plan.

Last week, Brussels green-lighted Italy’s plan for spending €191.5 billion in loans and grants from the fund, which promises support for the South as well as its primary focus on digitization and green energy. Yet this push to strengthen the Italian economy occurs against a backdrop of miniscule growth — 0.3 percent each year in the last decade. And recent polls show the hard right scoring strongly in the South — and poised to take advantage if promises of growth and new jobs fail to materialize quickly. Indeed, such results have been a long time coming. In a profound sense, Gullo’s firing in 1946 represents an important lost opportunity for the South.

While Bevilacqua’s work has often concentrated on environmental challenges, another high-profile historian, also today his seventies, has analyzed the mezzogiorno in terms of the long-term impact of its regressive, serf-like peasant history. In Paul Ginsborg’s cultural and economic classic, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988, he sees the postwar peasant rebellions that drove reform as an authentic surge of “history from below” briefly breathing life into a suffocating economic system which virtually destroyed peasants’ lives for generations.

If Gullo’s reforms — though far from perfect — had been allowed to take root, perhaps the Southern economy would have evolved quite differently. Above all, Gullo tapped into the peasants’ desires to be self-sustaining through equitable shares in land and communal initiatives based on their own villages. There was no easy fix, Ginsborg points out. But the very existence of peasant communes and organized resistance represented a huge breakthrough, which sought resolution in the parliament of the new Republic formed in 1946.

“’Gullo’s Reforms’ were the only attempt made by any left-wing minister to push reform at this critical moment in the formation of contemporary Italy,” writes Ginsborg. His decrees provided at least a 50 percent share of each harvest for peasants; the right of peasants to cultivate all unused land if they formed production co-ops; bonuses which would have encouraged sales to state food stores; an assurance that landowners could not suddenly evict peasants with no just cause; and an end to intermediaries such as the Mafia in Sicily.

“Gullo aimed to mobilize rather than demobilize the Southern peasantry, to encourage them to link family strategies to collective action, to overcome their fatalism and isolation. It was this quality that gave his legislation a stroke of genius,” Ginsborg adds. “If there is a single, recurrent, almost obsessive theme in the political history of postwar Italy, it is that of the need for reform and of the failure to achieve it.”

He also points to the failure of Palmiro Togliatti’s PCI as another key factor for disillusionment. “Skeptical of their real bargaining power, the Communists chose to play a waiting game. To do so brought many fruits but social reform was not to be among them.”

The Peasants Persist

The continued revolts across the mezzogiorno, even into the early 1950s, demonstrated the depth of anger and peasants’ willingness to put their lives on the line for significant reform. There had been spontaneous uprisings in Gullo’s birthplace, Calabria, even before he took office. “The uprisings soon spread from Calabria to Lucania, Sicily and Puglia,” writes Yale political scientist Sidney G. Tarrow in Peasant Communism in Southern Italy. “So sudden was this movement of the southern peasants that . . . the government conceded uncultivated land to peasant cooperatives.”

Around that time, on September 16, 1944, the “Villalba massacre,” involving the wounding of fourteen peasants in a tiny piazza in central Sicily, attracted national attention. One major reason was that Carlo Levi (famous as author of Christ Stopped at Eboli) showed up a few hours later and wrote about the incident. “The peasants were merely listening to Girolamo Li Causi, the powerful labor leader speak. The Don, also in the square, gave a signal for the Mafiosi to start shooting . . . this was the most noteworthy episode in that first stage of the peasants’ struggle,” writes Levi in the foreword to his friend Michele Pantaleone’s famous book, Mafia and Politics.

“If peasant land occupations were met with Mafia bullets, if the enforcement of the Gullo decrees was obstructed at every stage by the prefects and landowners,” writes Ginsborg, “then the choice was horribly clear. Either the movement was ‘radicalized’ or it went down to defeat. The political compromises of the PCI . . . its unwillingness to risk its alliance with the DC spelt . . . disaster in the South.”

PCI leader Togliatti, recently returned from Moscow, was obsessed with furthering the Italian Communist image of a “special road to socialism.” One example of his approach was a rather alarming speech he gave regarding Southern day laborers — the very core of PCI support at the time in the mezzogiorno. “Those who frequent our organizations are so poor, so badly dressed that the Sicilian woman with her century-old pride, finds herself a little ill-at-ease.” As a result, the PCI gradually transformed the revolutionary peasant movement into a much more mainstream force, dissipating the poorest peasants’ revolutionary ardor.

Yet there were some important gains. In 1950, the immense thirty-five thousand acres of land near Ignazio Silone’s birthplace, Pescina, was split up and divided among many peasant groups. “The forms of organization used were improvised and creative,” writes Tarrow. “Women participated in the work strikes for the first time in the mezzogiorno; their presence confused and demoralized the police. Nonetheless, the landowning class replied with killings and bloodshed.”

Under the DC Land Reform Act of 1950, massive problems persisted. The landowners installed “colleagues” on the local boards, and often managed to claim the best parcels of land for family members. In many cases, this legislation would become a “money pit” for a powerful new managerial class intent on embedding DC power for decades to come. “The inadequate nature of the 1950 reform laws was almost immediately apparent,” writes Ginsborg.

Above all, the DC reform broke forever those attempts at aggregation and cooperation which, for all their limitations, had been the inspiration behind peasant agitations from 1944 to 1950. The land occupations involving the mobilization of whole agro-towns swiftly came to an end, with the exception of those in some areas of Sicily — the cooperatives that had mushroomed after the Gullo decrees ceased to exist.

The peasant movement split irrevocably. Values of solidarity, self-sacrifice, and egalitarianism; attempts to overcome familism and distrust, developed by the movement amidst all manner of difficulties, were firmly marginated. In the subsequent history of the South, no such attempt to build an alternate political ethos was to be found again. The defeat of 1950 was thus of historic proportions, for it determined the values of contemporary Southern life.

Pessimism and Life in the North

Not surprisingly, by 1954, an Italian parliamentary study found that 85 percent of Italian families classified as poverty-stricken lived in the South. Gullo’s birthplace, Calabria, and nearby Basilicata, counted as the very poorest regions.

In that same year, a young American graduate from Vassar, Ann Cornelisen, signed on as an administrator for the British nonprofit Save the Children. Rather than work from an office in Rome, Cornelisen spent more than twenty years living in various Southern villages, rooming with local women. She got to know hundreds of families intimately and set up dozens of nursery schools throughout the South. Eventually, Corneilsen earned a first-rate reputation as an expert on the mezzogiorno, mostly through her four books: Where It All Began; Torregreca; Women of the Shadows; and Strangers and Pilgrims: The Last Italian Migration.

In many ways, Cornelisen’s analysis validates Ginsborg’s views of DC land reform. Speaking of the 1950s, she writes “It was a bad period for everyone. There was no work. The land produced less each year; the average income was under $400 a year. […] The families here all live on top of each other in one room or at the most, two. One family of eleven with two goats live in a windowless room eight by ten.”

She wrote that under the 1950 reform many peasants received nothing, or parcels so tiny it left them penniless. She described the farming conditions as primitive: one woman confided to Cornelisen that she and her husband owed the local reform board large sums of money as part of a contract they had to sign. They owed debt repayments for fertilizer, seed, insecticides, and such like, but their land was undesirable and it was hard to grow anything at all.

Cornelisen wrote: “the peasant has been maneuvered into the ambiguous position of being an indentured landowner, and worse, his master, was no one man but the hydra of modern civilization, a government agency … Hundreds of peasants had been reconstituted as unskilled construction workers. They were in a bureaucratic holding pattern.”

But in 1955, everything changed. West Germany’s economy was growing so strongly that it signed a treaty with Italy to recruit workers. Soon afterward, treaties were also signed with Spain, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, and Yugoslavia. The program was endorsed by Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and German trade union members agreed to support the plan as long as they were guaranteed the best jobs. But the foreign workers were to get the same wages as their German counterparts for similar jobs — a real boon for Southern Italian workers.

And, in 1957, Italy became a founding member of the European Economic Community, later to become the European Union. Italians were given legal rights to the same labor and residency regulations as their German counterparts. They had the right, for example, to not only become union members, but union leaders.

As a result, Cornelisen saw the southern villages she knew immediately empty out of men aged eighteen to forty. After a while, wives joined their husbands. Cornelisen’s book Strangers and Pilgrims chronicles her journey all over industrial Germany after these villagers had worked there for many years. She wrote that many Italians continued to feel like perennial strangers in Germany, but many had made serious inroads in their lifestyles: they had more money than they had ever made in the mezzogiorno. They had savings accounts, decent places to live, pensions, union protections, and in a number of cases, job promotions as Germans switched from blue- to white-collar jobs.

What Cornelisen found near-universally was a white-hot anger among these Southern Italian workers at the corruption and ineptitude they had suffered under trying to make a living in their own hometowns. There, they had often been characterized as too lazy and witless to make a decent living, while it was obvious to Cornelisen that the conditions in those towns only fostered those attitudes and made success close to impossible in many cases. Many workers had found a sense of dignity in Germany that they were unable to find at home.

The South’s Future

Bevilacqua has written extensively about Southern Italy’s history, often from an environmental point of view, very different from Ginsborg’s work. But both historians’ work offers common insights. In a 1998 article entitled “Reforming the South,” Bevilacqua writes that it “is possible to reform southern society not following a foreign model of industrial development, but, above all, promoting local forms of enterprises, based on original resources: the space of inner hills, the woods, and so on….”

His emphasis is on the physical environment of the South. And he writes that in the years of DC reforms, the South was “equipped with an extensive network of irrigation canals, built by the company Agri-Sinni that have increased irrigated land to over 400,000 acres. The historical deficit of Mediterranean agriculture, namely the spring and summer drought, has been overcome and turned into an advantage, compared with agriculture in the northern regions.”

Bevilacqua’s highly acclaimed work, Venice and the Water: A Model for Our Planet, is a classic, read by environmentalists the world over. His book describes, almost a thousand years before the Industrial Revolution, Venice’s development of policies and institutions for surviving as an independent city-state in the midst of her lagoon.

He surveys policies and institutions that set about managing Venice’s natural resources, “a scientific approach that kept private interests secondary to those of the commonwealth.” Bevilacqua looks to Venice’s past economic and political choices as a model for the twenty-first century. “This history of Venice recounts the experience of technicians, hydrographic experts, fishermen, and woodcutters: our obscure, unknown past, made up of the labor and mighty exertions of individuals, and above all, the concerted action of the community.”

Looking at “the Southern problem” from this environment standpoint, alongside Ginsborg’s long-term cultural and labor perspective, could help prepare some longer-term solutions for Southern Italy. This is no longer mainly a region of peasants. But the spirit of Gullo’s reforms remains a legacy to build on today.