As this author is quick to point out, Americans--along with everyone else--have never taken Italian politics at all seriously. Italian movies, literature, and fashions, yes; but we have always considered Italians, ""though a marvelous and fascinating people, (to) have a curious ineptness for politics."" Meanwhile, next year, Italy will go to the polls to make a decision which ""matters."" If the radically new Center-Left coalition wins, the country may be able finally to achieve a stable democratic government. Otherwise it will be thrust back into its old, perilous dilemma, torn between the extremes of Left and Right. This thorough and pertinent review of Italy's political history begins in 1890 and carries through 1963. The titles of the three parts into which the volume is divided are indicative of the approach: ""The Sand Castle,"" ""The Petrified Spider Web,"" and ""The New Direction."" The author's primary departure from traditional assumptions is the idea that fascism both is and is not central; what went before and what came after it, he believes, is more important to an understanding of the real Italy. A preoccupation with the writings and--especially--the social impact of Benedetto Croce follows closely upon such reasoning. Mr. Hughes has done a brilliant job of arguing the Italian liberal case from the American liberal viewpoint.