Commentary. On that day, the demonstration didn’t just take over a few large squares: it took over Milan.

Do you remember April 25, 1994?

It was a demonstration against fascism, of course, with all the fitting slogans, appropriately imaginative, and the mandatory Bella Ciao, but with a rap beat and with the lyrics slightly changed: “O, partisan, take them away” – free us from the nightmare of still-avowed neo-Fascists in the majority and soon to be in government, from the Lega who had already taken Milan and were becoming popular all over the north, and from the artificial party which was the personal property of an industrialist for whom the word “controversial” was a serious understatement, and who, less than a month before, had taken 21 percent of the vote. Less than a point above the PDS, but enough to make it the most voted political force in Italy.

But above all, it was a demonstration against despondency and resignation. The former was rampant. The second was looming.

We had seen them coming: we just hadn’t realized how many there were. To suddenly see the MSI as Italy’s third-largest party, an integral part of a winning alliance, while its leader Fini was calling Benito Mussolini “the greatest statesman of the century” without even a hint of euphemism, was beyond the limits of the imaginable: the world really had turned upside down and it seemed to have done so almost in an instant.

We had a newspaper that we had never thought of as just an information medium, however alternative, but had always seen as an instrument of struggle: “an original subject of politics” in the words of Luigi Pintor, “a privateer ship” in those of Valentino Parlato.

We had just revamped it: in a different format, much more supple. Editor Pintor and deputy Pierluigi Sullo, who had come up with the idea, had wanted it that way not only in order to raise the circulation numbers, but, most importantly, to make it more combative and incisive, more appropriate to a phase that we knew was decisive for the country’s future.

And so, who else than us would be able to summon the entire left in disarray, call it to redemption, prevent it from wallowing in defeat? “What if we had a demonstration,” our editor proposed. It was organized in record time. Everyone responded, no one was excluded, and everyone agreed to not try to put their own political brand on it.

Politicians did come to Milan – a flood of them, in fact. There was PDS Secretary Achille Occhetto, late and escorted by the young lions (more like house cats) who were about to replace him, D’Alema and Veltroni. There was Bertinotti and all of Rifondazione together with him. There were the Catholics, and Mino Martinazzoli fresh from his resignation as the last secretary of the Christian Democrats and the first of the Popular Party, after he had refused an electoral alliance with the PDS that would have changed the outcome of the elections and the history of the country.

They were all there, and they were the talk of the newspapers the next day, although they didn’t have much to say. But it wasn’t them who were the protagonists. It was the hundreds of thousands of people – 300,000 according to the newspapers, probably more – who had arrived by special trains and columns of buses, or on their own, in their cars, or had come out of their homes in a Milan that had seemed deserted in the morning, due to the holiday, the weekend and the stormy weather, but by the afternoon overflowed with wet and festive comrades.

Too many to fit in the three squares from which the processions started, let alone the one in which they all converged for the final rally, Piazza Duomo. On that day, the demonstration didn’t just take over a few large squares: it took over Milan.

Few were able to even hear the final rally. On the stage, together with Arrigo Boldrini representing the ANPI, was Paolo Emilio Taviani. He had been resistant to the idea, but then he had also been resistant against “the communist menace,” and employed rather shady methods.

But on that day, even though the social centers decided to break away from the main demonstration, it was one of the few truly unified moments in the troubled history of the Italian left. For a few hours, and then for a few weeks and months, the awareness of having to fend off a looming threat prevailed over any opportunistic considerations, over any fear of displeasing the fundamentalist part of their respective electorates.

Pintor’s intuition about the need for an event that was not convened or sponsored by any particular party proved successful, and not only in terms of the extraordinary participation.

Until right before the marches started at 2 p.m., many people were praying that it wouldn’t rain. Then, with the first raindrops starting to fall right on cue at 2 p.m., as if they’d also been called to participate, people continued to keep their fingers crossed that at least it wouldn’t rain too much. They were disappointed; that was how that year was shaping up.

Ask anyone who was in the streets that day what they remember, and they will all answer: “It was raining.” It was actually pouring: overhead footage shows a carpet of umbrellas the size of the entire center of the “moral capital”; and, as we all know, when it rains, demonstrations have a hard time getting off the ground, morale goes down, the impulse to fight wanes. This time it didn’t. The cloudburst didn’t discourage people or dampen their energy. It was a combative demonstration, without being full of rage or aggravated.

It was a happy demonstration. That tide of soaking wet people rediscovered that they were half the country and forgot the discouragement that had taken over everyone’s heart after the March 26 elections.

Vittorio Feltri, that bearer of ill omens, predicted the worst: “There will be death.” The demonstration of the social centers, which had chosen to march on its own and was enormous all by itself, was supposed to fulfill the baleful prophecies that the leading journalist of the Italian right wing was already touting.

Almost nothing happened: the section of the Lega, which had decided to join and marched at the back of the demonstration, saw some protests but everyone trod lightly. A few Lega figures, now forgotten but then in the spotlight – particularly Francesco Speroni, the future minister with the leather tie – took it badly anyway, and called for the resignation of the prefect and chief of police.

Umberto Bossi, who had marched as well and was duly booed, rebuked Speroni: “Protests are normal in demonstrations like this one. It’s the popular spirit, which we understand well: the Lega is anti-fascist.”

It was on that day that Berlusconi’s first government, which had not yet been born on April 25 and would not take office until May 17, began to fall. This would not be clear for some time: on June 13, in the European elections, FI exceeded 30 percent and its lead over the PDS widened to 11 points. On our cover page, we put a drawing of a light bulb going out: “Goodnight.” But that test of life and strength that we gave ourselves in the rain had not been in vain.

In the fall came the big demonstrations against pension reform. They were the consistent continuation of April 25, and without that mobilization, Bossi couldn’t have given the government the stab in the back in December, which put an end, after only 7 months, to the first government of the Italian right wing.

After losing support in December, Berlusconi was finally dislodged from the Palazzo Chigi in January 1995.

He would not have returned if the center-left, after winning the 1996 elections, had done its job instead of giving in to the neoliberal frenzy and foundering among its own eternal power games.

Instead, in 2001, the same right wing against which the April 25 people had marched returned to government.

But it wasn’t really the same right wing. It no longer had either the blind arrogance or the boundless and extremely dangerous ambitions of 1994. On March 26 of that year, it had thought it had become lord and master of the country, and for a moment, in the weeks following those traumatic elections, the defeated side had thought so too. The right had thought it could ignore the more-than-half of the country that hadn’t voted for it and didn’t want it.

And from that meteoric period, from those seven months of turmoil and rapid collapse, it had learned on its own skin that winning elections doesn’t in fact mean being “anointed by the Lord,” as Silvio Berlusconi said in the summer of 1994.

It started to learn it on April 25 in Milan. Perhaps it’s time to teach this lesson once again to today’s right wingers.

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