With ‘enemies’ like these, who needs friends?

Again and again, the official Italian Communist party helped to prop up Italy’s ruling class, saving it from its potential gravediggers.

James Heartfield

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From its foundation in 1921 to its dissolution in 1991, the Italian Communist Party (the PCI) was the largest and most influential of all Communist parties outside of the Communist bloc, with nearly two million members and a popular vote as high as a third of all votes cast in the country.

Lucio Magri, who died last November, spent his adult life as a Communist, first in the party, then breaking away to found a more militant group (il manifesto) in the 1960s, then rejoining in the 1980s in time to see General Secretary Achille Occhetto wind it up as its inspiration, the Soviet Union, collapsed. When outraged party loyalists formed a Communist Refoundation Party that won seats in parliament in the 1990s, Magri was among them. ‘The Tailor of Ulm’, from which Magri takes the title for his history of Italian Communism, is a story by Bertolt Brecht about a man who invents a flying machine in the eighteenth century and, challenged to prove it, falls to his death from a church tower. This was the parable that Magri was told by a senior official to explain the dissolution of the party, with Brecht’s ironic moral: the tailor was not wrong; he was ahead of his time.

The history of Communism in Italy’s struggles in the twentieth century has been well told in Paul Ginsborg’s two books, in Joan Urban’s study of Moscow’s influence on the PCI, and by writers among the many PCI spin-offs on the Italian far left (1). Magri’s settling of accounts/memoir of the PCI does a lot to give a flavour of the arguments from the point of view of a participant – it is a lively and intelligent account. Still, the unavoidable conclusion is that the idea put about by many radical writers and endorsed by Magri – that the PCI was unusually inventive and, in contrast to other Communist parties, relatively independent of the deadening influence of the ‘leadership’ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – is a painful and foolish myth.

What is exceptional in the history of Italy and of the PCI is that at the crucial points when the country’s ruling elite had lost all authority, it was, weirdly, the Communists who saved capitalism from working-class revolt. In the 1920s, when the one-time-socialist-turned-fascist Mussolini had swept aside parliament and parties, the Communists were paralysed with indecision and driven underground (2). When in 1943, in the face of popular protests and strikes, the Fascist Grand Council took fright and deposed Mussolini, it was PCI chairman Palmiro Togliatti who persuaded the Allies that the Fascist Pietro Badoglio’s government should be recognised. Then when the Italian ruling class’s authority collapsed with the partisans’ victories over German forces, the leadership of the party persuaded its militants to install a government of ‘national unity’, even going so far as to help to invent an anti-fascist Christian Democrat party (DC) with which to share power (3).

An irritable Lucio Magri refuses to look at this spectacular own-goal, dismissing the ‘theory of the blocked revolution’. The DC would, with a massive injection of cash and arm-twisting by the United States, do all in its power to keep the PCI out of office, effectively ruling Italy for the next 46 years. In the turbulent years of the late Sixties, the PCI did all it could to undermine the radical student revolt and to stop its militant mood spreading to the working class. (It was at this point that even a loyal Communist like Magri found it impossible to stay in the party.) In the 1970s, when economic crisis was met with working-class militancy which threatened at last to wreck the DC regime, it was the PCI under Enrico Berlinguer that saved them, by supporting Andreotti’s minority government with a promise of ‘no “no-confidence” vote’.

Lucio Magri makes much of the indigenous Italian Communist tradition and the basis it gave for an outlook independent of the dominant Russian party in the Communist movement. Antonio Gramsci, party secretary and a noted political writer who died, thrown in jail by Mussolini, in 1937, is known for his distinction between the ‘war of position’ – consolidating the left’s influence – and outright struggle for power, or the ‘war of manoeuvre’. Gramsci’s categories were meant to get the party used to periods of patient work building up support after the dramatic struggles of the Russian Revolution (4). It was a formula that would lend itself to endless compromises, while mocking those militants who wanted to rush ahead to take on the enemy.

Enrico Berlinguer, PCI secretary general from 1972 to 1984, developed the theory of the ‘historic compromise’, a bad analogy referring to the way in which the early capitalist class had compromised with the old order to remake society in its own image while keeping the symbols of kings and nobility as a safety blanket. So too, thought Berlinguer, would the Communists share power with the capitalist leaders of the DC to ease their way into power. In election after election, the PCI offered to share power only to be rebuffed by the DC (whose only real policy, to keep the Communists out, formed the basis of its appeal to its American and European allies). No matter how degrading the terms the PCI offered, the DC gave them nothing, until in the end Berlinguer was reduced to supporting the minority DC government without any ministerial posts or policy changes, even though the Communists had won more votes. As Magri does admit, the Communists not only supported a government that would have collapsed without them, they pushed the trade unions to accept wage limits to prove their moderation.

Magri’s criticisms of the party, though, are not substantial. He criticises as if to hold them to account to an ideal version of their own politics, not understanding that the sorry denouement is the obvious outcome of this ideal. He baulks at Berlinguer’s austerity wage policy, but still hopes that there is a redeeming feature in its philosophical reworking as a critique of consumerism. Magri makes much of Berlinguer’s courage standing up to Moscow, but it is hardly earth-shattering to say, in 1981, a quarter of a century after the invasion of Hungary, that ‘the impetus that showed itself over long periods going back to the greatest revolutionary event of our epoch, the October Revolution, is now exhausted’. More to the point, Berlinguer was not criticising the Soviet Union; he was acknowledging that the Communist movement had run out of steam. Yet when Berlinguer’s successor Occhetto wound up the party, Magri claims that this was a betrayal of the party, and of Berlinguer.

Magri notes that Berlinguer played an important role in laying the ground for the campaign against the corruption of the political party system, but shows no understanding that the clean-hands campaign was dangerously anti-political, and authoritarian, taking power out of the hands of elected politicians and giving it up to unelected judges. Similarly, it was the PCI that pushed hardest for Italy to submit to the guidance of the European Union. It is a shame that Magri’s book does not deal with the trends in Italian politics after the dissolution of the PCI, when his own midget Communist organisation won some support and even got further than the original in sharing power. More surprising perhaps is that the ex-Communist Giorgio Napolitano was made president – a reward for winding up the party. The weaknesses of the Italian left, its pathological inability to claim the power that was resting in its lap and the preference for the stability of the old order, was a real influence on Italian society. Italy’s feckless capitalist class has always been able to rely on the left to keep it in power. To the left’s amazement, the party that swept up in the anti-corruption drive was not its own, but Silvio Berlusconi’s joke Forza Italia. Even when Berlusconi was finally taken down, it was not by the left, but by the technocrats of the European Union, who put a government of unelected experts in place to run the country. The EU apparatchik running that administration, Mario Monti, was made a life senator by Napolitano.

Another parable of the Communist era, an apocryphal story, says that after Nikita Khrushchev made his extraordinary ‘secret speech’ in 1956, outlining his predecessor Joseph Stalin’s errors and crimes at great length, a voice called out from the hall: ‘And what were you doing all that time?’ Khrushchev jumped to his feet and demands ‘Who said that?’. All the delegates are silent, staring hard at their feet. ‘That’s what I was doing’, explains Khrushchev.

Too often in Lucio Magri’s account he is silent, staring at his feet: ‘I was a silent participant’ who ‘did not want to appear a busybody’; ‘I… was convinced of the opposite, but I resigned myself to acquiescent silence’. Having summed up his life here, at a loss as to what to do with himself, Magri called his close friends to one last dinner party and then took the trip to Zurich to end his own life with the help of doctors.

James Heartfield‘s most recent book is The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909, published by Hurst and Columbia University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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