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A Founding Father

Vita di Antonio Gramsci

by Giuseppe Fiori
Editori Laterza, 363 pp., 900 Lire

Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism

by John M. Cammett
Stanford, 306 pp., $8.50

A short time ago, in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, after announcing my party’s vote in favor of a Communist proposal for the abolition of movie censorship, I concluded, “It is superfluous to point out that Liberals have been against all kinds of censorship in all countries for centuries, while Communists are against it only when and where they are not in power.” I sat down as the extreme Left booed me. All this had happened before. Whenever the occasion warrants it, either the Communists or the Liberals make similar proposals, the Liberals more often than the Communists; a noble debate follows. The Liberals draw the neat distinction between permanent and occasional love of liberty; the Communists boo; then an overwhelming majority (Catholics, neo-Fascists, Monarchists, Republicans, and Socialists) buries us under an avalanche of nays. As I was leaving on that particular day, the young, erudite, and inexperienced Marxist-Leninist who had just spoken on behalf of his Party ran after me and said, “This you must admit, that the Italian Communists have always been in favor of liberty!” He was visibly hurt that doubts should be cast on the sincerity and intellectual consistency of his motives. I did not argue. I knew he had no doubts that liberty (real liberty, and not the trompe l’oeil variety which bewitched our grandfathers and is still held sacred by the bourgeois) could be secured in no other way than by serving one of the most tyrannical, bureaucratic, and dogma-ridden organizations ever invented by man. I reassured him. Yes, I said, the Italian Communists have always declared liberty was their ultimate goal. He looked relieved and thanked me.

This apparently contradictory belief, that pyromaniacs make the best firemen, that one can further the cause of the angels by joining the devils, is undisputed among Italian intellectual Communists. The rank and file do not worry about such metaphysical matters; they wholeheartedly belong to what they rightly think is a pitiless, centralized, and well-knit mass organization, which will destroy all class enemies, conquer the world, and run it autocratically, according to inflexible scientific rules, in the interest of the proletariat. They would like nothing better than a good bloody revolution tomorrow morning but they know they have to be patient. In the meantime they enjoy occasional street brawls and disorderly strikes, which are good for frightening the government, intimidating the American embassy, and extracting concessions from the capitalists. Few ordinary card-holding members ever felt qualms of conscience. They dearly loved Stalin; considered forced-labor camps a sad necessity; cheered the Soviet tanks in Budapest; and now are tempted to applaud Mao, the leader of a comprehensible form of paleo-Communism.

The intellectual elite, on the other hand, who have run the Party since 1924 with absolute power and no back talk, were continually tortured by secret doubts while Stalin was alive. Even loyal Palmiro Togliatti had to struggle with his conscience. He told Ignazio Silone in 1930: “The forms of the proletarian revolution are not arbitrary. If they do not correspond to our preferences, so much the worse for us. And what is the alternative? What happens to the comrades who abandon the party?” Many intellectuals were shocked by Khrushchev’s twentieth congress speech, tore up their cards after the Hungarian revolution, are frightened by the ultimate consequences of the Chinese schism, and openly deplore the primitive excesses of the red guards.

Can it be said that there are two parties in juxtaposition, the party of the intellectual leaders and that of the rank and file? To be sure, the difference between the two is almost invisible to the outsider. The intellectual leaders appear to him on the surface to be as enthusiastic, orthodox, and disciplined as any ordinary member; they always respectfully follow Soviet decisions, particularly in foreign affairs. (During the recent troubles, they all sided with Nasser against Israel, “a tool of the imperialists,” as soon as Pravda took its stand.) Yet, if one looks a little more attentively, one discovers that there is often something vaguely heretical about them. To be sure, their writings quote Marx and Lenin, but just as often are based on Italian historical writers, Italian philosophers from Vico to Croce, none of whom were particularly noted for their revolutionary spirit. Communist examples and teachings from the Soviet Union and other Communist countries are painstakingly adapted to local prejudices and social conditions, until at times nothing recognizable is left. Above all, they cherish the Italian Liberal tradition from the Parthenopean Republic of 1799 to the Carbonari society and the Garibaldi expeditions; they show an odd respect for all the barricades of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which established those very liberties which their followers consider ridiculous impediments to progress, mere decoys for sentimental fellow travelers.

Once, years ago, when Gian Carlo Paietta, an energetic young chief, stormed the prefecture of Milan at the head of a tumultuous crowd, and called Togliatti in Rome from the Prefect’s own phone, the leader did not hide his displeasure: “Get out of there immediately,” he said. “What do you think you’re doing? Lenin said that either one carries out a revolution to the end or one does not.” When Togliatti was wounded by an assassin in 1948, his last instructions to his lieutenants before being wheeled to the operating table were: “Siate calmi. Non perdete la testa.” “Be calm. Don’t lose your heads.” To be sure, the cadres all know they might one day have to lead a real revolution and have to kill and deport thousands of opponents, including women and children. But they confess privately their hope that their opponents, being intelligent Italians, will know in time when the game is up, will see the folly of putting up a pointless show of resistance, and will resign themselves to the inevitability of historical forces. One might say the leaders of the Italian Communist Party dislike revolutions just as much as studious staff officers dislike the untidiness of war.

This curious situation, in which a party of millions of fanatic, uncultivated, and easily influenced people has always been efficiently controlled by a relatively small number of mild scholars, most of whom abhor violent words, wear glasses, and speak with soft voices, has proved to be a very successful one. Had the party been led mainly by sectarian terrorists as certain other Communist parties are, it would have been weak and vulnerable. Indeed, this proved to be so between 1921 and about 1923, when the Party was led by its founder, Amadeo Bordiga, an engineer from Formia, who was an uncompromising, intransigent, stubborn revolutionary. Bordiga commanded an enthusiastic mass following, but divided the Left opposition, managed to frighten the bourgeoisie out of their wits, and helped the Fascists gain power by rallying all the timid to their side. As a result, the Party was practically destroyed and driven underground. On the other hand, an organization composed of a few thousand bookish students of history and philosophy, vaguely in love with liberty and anxious to free man from century-old injustices, would have been equally doomed to failure. The last movement of this kind was the Partito d’Azione, organized clandestinely during the time of Mussolini. All leaders and no soldiers, and probably including the finest and noblest minds in the country, it once and for all showed the practical ineffectiveness of the formula: Its members filled the jails, died heroically in the Resistance, left a priceless heritage of doctrine and examples, but never managed to win one seat in Parliament when democracy was reestablished.

TO BE SURE not all Communists are happy with the present situation. One impatient young member, an excellent novelist, recently compared the Party to an old galleon, loaded with money, men, and guns, and becalmed in the middle of the ocean. Dissatisfied critics accuse the leaders of being fat bureaucrats in love with the status quo, old men whose aim is not the revolution but the enjoyment of power in a free society, and point out that they did nothing when they could easily have staged a coup d’état immediately after the end of the war. The Party was still armed, the Americans had discharged their soldiers and abandoned their weapons to rust on foreign beaches, the Italian bourgeoisie was dispirited, and the State in almost complete decay. Nothing happened. Stalin himself thought the Italian leadership too bookish to be effective. “Look at Togliatti,” he told Vladimir Dedijer. “He is a good theoretician, he writes good political articles, but will never be able to rally the people and lead them to victory.” Togliatti was known as “the Professor” in the Comintern secretariat in the Thirties. It has also been pointed out that the middle classes which the Party sacrificed so much to assuage have not been pacified. They still distrust and fear it. The Party’s overtures to democratic parties, its loud declarations in favor of liberty, parliamentary institutions, and peace are looked upon by most of its opponents as signs of duplicity and transparent Machiavellian tricks.

All this Byzantine sophistry and high culture are undoubtedly causing many simple card-carrying Communists to abandon the cells. Nevertheless the number of voters grows at every election, both in absolute figures and in percentages. At present one Italian out of four votes for the Party candidates. Nothing stops this growth, neither the center Left coalition nor the rising standard of living of the working classes. The Party is now a major factor not only in Italian internal politics (every party’s position is now more or less determined by its relation to the Communists), but also in European affairs and Western defense plans. It even forced the Church to consider coming to terms with it. It has not placated the fears of the middle class, to be sure, but this time it has surely prevented the rise of a violent and armed extreme Right faction. The Party is so influential and learned that it is now affecting the thinking and the plans of all Western Communist parties to a greater extent than the mother party, the CP of the Soviet Union, now does. It is even influencing the younger and more liberal thinkers in the Soviet Union itself, who like the Italians’ disapproval of political dictatorship over the arts. Some experts believe that if conditions do not change some day, probably within ten or twelve years, the Italian Communists will control enough votes to attract other parties to form a strong coalition government. This would be a final triumph of the intellectual elite. That day they will have fully succeeded in creating, out of a violent, immature, illiterate, and impatient mass following, a moderate, realistic, cultured, and prudent movement—the only kind that could possibly conquer power, and do so without provoking international complications and internal reactions, while receiving the blessings of the Church, and perhaps even the approval of the State Department.

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