The Left group (Italian: Sinistra), later called Historical Left (Italian: Sinistra storica) by historians to distinguish it from the left-wing groups of the 20th century, was a liberal and reformist parliamentary group in Italy during the second half of the 19th century. The members of the Left were also known as Democrats or Ministerials. The Left was the dominant political group in the Kingdom of Italy from the 1870s until its dissolution in the early 1910s.

Historical Left
Sinistra storica
Merged intoLiberal Union
Social liberalism[3]
Italian nationalism[5][6]
Political positionCentre[10] to centre-left[11]

Different to its Right counterpart, the Left was the result of coalition who represented Northern and Southern middle class, urban bourgeoisie, small businessmen, journalists and academics. It also supported a right to vote and the public school for all children. Moreover, the party was against the high tax policies promoted by the Right. After the 1890s, the Left began to show more conservative tendencies, including advocating breaking strikes and protests and promoting an aggressive colonialist policy in Africa.



Formation and consolidation

Urbano Rattazzi

The Left originated from a parliamentary group inside the Sardinian Parliament as the opposition to the right-wing government of the Marquess of Azeglio. It was not a structured party, but simply an opposition divided in two tendencies:

The cooperation between Rattazzi and Cavour grew strong and the two plotted to oust D'Azeglio from office. After the 1851 self-coup of President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in France, the fake rumors about a same decision by the government caused the fall of D'Azeglio in 1852,[14] orchestrated by Cavour and Rattazzi with the final goal of took the power, with Cavour becoming Prime Minister while Rattazzi became President of the Chamber of Deputies. This unusual coalition between Left and Right was sharply nicknamed Connubio Rattazzi–Cavour (literally "marriage") by conservative opposition.[15]

The Sardinian intervention in the Crimean War, which Rattazzi opposed, caused the decline of the Left–Right coalition in 1855. After pressions by now-Emperor Napoleon III over Cavour in 1858, Rattazzi was forced to resign as Minister of the Interior because he was reputed to be too nationalist and intransigent about Italian unification, which Cavour intended only as a Sardinian–Piedmontese expansion. Despite the exclusion from the government, the Left and Rattazzi, thanks to his friendship with Rosa Vercellana, mistress of the King,[16] rapidly gained Victor Emmanuel II's favour.[17]

During the 1860s after the Italian unification, the Left was in opposition, but the turmoils of that age were also reflected inside the group, which was now divided into three main factions:[1]

Depretis and Cairoli

Agostino Depretis

After the death of Rattazzi in 1873, Depretis took over the leadership of the Left. In 1862, Depretis was briefly Minister of Public Works in a government led by Rattazzi with both Left and Right ministers. He justified the agreement with the Right by stating the following:

We cannot allow that majorities must remain unchangeable [...]. Ideas grow up with actions, and like science advance and the world moves, so parties are transforming. They also undergo the law of motion, the occurrence of transformations.

This statement was the basis of the phenomenon of trasformismo (literally transformism),[22] which consists in a constant changing of political faction motivated by opportunity rather than ideals. In 1876, the Right Prime Minister Marco Minghetti lost parliamentary confidence[23] thanks to an agreement between Depretis and liberist factions of the Right, opposed to the railways nationalization project. King Victor Emmanuel II verified the impossibility for the Right to gain confidence and nominated Depretis as Prime Minister, who formed a Left-only government. In November 1876, the legislative election confirmed the stability of the Left that gained the 56% of votes. The Depretis ministry realized a tax reform and tried to align Italy with Germany against the currently conservative France and Austria-Hungary,[24] but after strong criticism for his decision to abolish the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Trade[25] he resigned and was substituted by his rival Benedetto Cairoli in 1877. Differently by the pragmatic Depretis, Cairoli was a strong opponent of trasformismo, an irridentist and Francophile. Isolated by the European powers at the Congress of Berlin, Cairoli was forced to resign in 1878 after a failed life attempt to King Umberto I[26] and after lesser than nine months of government. Despite a short break with a new Depretis cabinet (survived eight months), Cairoli formed a new executive with Depretis support in 1879. Despite the Left's electoral success in the election of 1880, the Cairoli ministry was unable to prevent the French conquest of the Beylik of Tunis in 1881 that resulted his political death, becoming unpopular with both Left and Right.[27]

Benedetto Cairoli

The decline of Cairoli opened the door to Depretis, who was chosen to form a new government. During this long term from 1881 to 1887, the Left led by Depretis achieved a series of success, like the manhood suffrage toward the low-educated citizens and the adoption of protectionism to favour the development of textile, iron and steel industries[28] while facing many internal and international troubles. Particularly, the executive faced the difficult relationship with Austria that showed an anti-Italian attitude[29] despite the common adhesion to the Triple Alliance with Germany,[30] and ended the Italian international isolation.[31] Another problem was the rupture with the radical-progressive Left led by Giuseppe Zanardelli and Francesco Crispi, who formed with other dissidents The Pentarchy,[32] allied with the Historical Far Left, forcing the majority to fully embrace the trasformismo, opening the government to the Right. Depretis was also unable to start a colonial empire in Africa[33] after the defeat in the Battle of Dogali in 1887. Despite the victory in the election of 1886, the Left was tested by decline of traformismo, with many opportunist Right politicians who joined in the Liberal Constitutional Party, causing the necessity of Depretis to find an agreement with Crispi and Zanardelli.[34]

Crispi, Giolitti and dissolution

Francesco Crispi

In 1887, the longtime Depretis died in office and Zanardelli and Crispi were favoured for the succession. King Umberto I finally chose the radical Crispi because he was more favourable to an alliance with Germany rather than progressive Zanardelli.[35] Internally, Crispi reformed justice, supporting a law against administrative abuses and introducing the Zanardelli Code (named after the now Justice Minister),[36] expanded the suffrage for the communal voters, obtained more executive powers for the government, established undersecretaries in the several ministries and created the Health Superior Council.[37] Despite Crispi being more leftist than Depretis, he was also a strong nationalist and rapidly became near to German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the Germanophile King Umberto II.[38] Crispi wanted reunite all the Italian-speaking territories in one nation, revealing to the German general Alfred von Waldersee his desire to annex the Austrian Trentino and French Nice.[39] Despite his successes, Crispi lost the parliamentary confidence in 1891 after a failed attempt to reduce state expensens and prefecture against the interests of many politicians.[40]

Giovanni Giolitti

During the momentary isolation of Crispi, the former Treasury Minister Giovanni Giolitti took over the Left leadership. By contrast with the statist Crispi, Giolitti was a liberal like Zanardelli[41] and did not support colonialism and militarization. After the fall of the conservative government of the Marquess of Rudinì in 1892, Giolitti was designated to form a new government. As Prime Minister, Giolitti tried to introduce a progressive taxation and stop the trasformismo with the establishment of an organized political party.[42] However, the Giolitti ministry did not survive long and after nine months of stability in January 1893 the Banca Romana scandal erupted, which involved many politicians of the Left, including Giolitti and Crispi.[43] After months of polemics, Giolitti resigned in December 1893.

After that short parenthesis, Crispi was re-nominated Prime Minister despite the critics for his involvement in the Banca Romana scandal. One of the first act of the government was the reduction of state expenses together with income, land, salt and treasury bill taxes to face the economic crisis. Despite the initial Left tendencies, Crispi got worried about the Italian Socialist Party[44] and after the suppression of the labour movement of the Fasci Siciliani the executive changed the electoral law, permitting the vote only to the literate citizens, excluding 800,000 voters.[45] At the same time, Crispi tried to re-obtain popular support prosecuting a colonialist policy in Africa, consolidating the acquisition of Somaliland and Eritrea and starting the First Abyssinian War in 1894. Despite the initial successes, the Italian campaign resulted disastrous, with ruinous defeats at Amba Alagi in 1895 and Adwa in 1896. The last confirmed the end of the Crispi's political rule, who resigned from office.[46] The Crispi's resignation and the impairment of many members of the majority after the Banca Romana scandal, confirmed the end of the Left. The Left's remnants now constituted the Ministerial bloc inside the Parliament led by Giolitti, who finally realized the fusion between Right and Left in the Liberal Union in 1913.[47]

Electoral results

Chamber of Deputies
Election year Votes % Seats +/– Leader
1861 48,875 (2nd) 20.4
62 / 443
1865 98,708 (2nd) 35.2
156 / 443
1867 126,202 (1st) 43.0
225 / 493
1870 92,499 (2nd) 28.8
195 / 493
1874 150,119 (2nd) 46.4
232 / 508
1876 243,319 (1st) 70.2
424 / 508
1880 146,096 (1st) 40.7
218 / 508
1882 695,147 (1st) 56.8
289 / 508
1886 804,187 (1st) 57.5
292 / 508
1890 1,165,489 (1st) 78.9
401 / 508
1892 1,075,244 (1st) 63.5
323 / 508
1895 713,812 (1st) 58.6
334 / 508
1897 799,517 (1st) 64.3
327 / 508
1900 663,418 (1st) 52.3
296 / 508
1904 777,345 (1st) 50.9
339 / 508
1909 995,290 (1st) 54.4
336 / 508


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