The Tailor of Ulm (Il Sarto Di Ulm) by Lucio Magri (translated by Patrick Camiller)

Honeymooning in 1979 on a package holiday to the Hotel Alaska, Rimini (it’s surprising how attractive the word Alaska sounds on a hot July day in Italy), I became friends with a man who ran a bar. I remember him saying to me, one day, in reply to some question I asked, ‘Sono communista io’. To make that statement as casually as he did, would really have been impossible in Ireland. In that sense, I think he was the first communist I had ever met who was completely comfortable in his skin. Communism has deep cultural and social roots in Italy even still. The singer-song-writer Giorgio Gaber puts it well in his wry, nostalgic stage monologue ‘Qualcuno era comunista perché’ (A person was a communist because…):

“[Qualcuno era comunista] perché aveva bisogno di una spinta verso qualcosa di nuovo, perché sentiva la necessità di una morale diversa, perché era solo una forza, un sogno, un volo, era solo uno slancio, un desiderio di cambiare le cose, di cambiare la vita.”

“A person was a communist because he had a need for a push towards something new, because he felt the need for a different kind of morality, because it was simply a force, a dream, a flight, it was simply an impulse, a desire to change things, to change life.’

I have often asked my Italian friends who were members of or close to the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) what happened to the once powerful party. I have been given many explanations and I suspect for most of them the collapse of the PCI was a personal as well as a national catastrophe. This was, after all, the largest communist party outside of the Soviet Union and China. It had the great fortune to have as one of its founders one of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century, Antonio Gramsci. It had a history of struggle, particularly against fascism. It counted almost all of Italy’s intellectuals, writers and artists among its members, including, at one time or another, Italo Calvino, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Natalia Ginsburg, Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante, Federico Fellini, Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia, Salvatore Quasimodo, Natalia Ginzburg, Leonardo Sciascia, Vittorio de Sica, the singer Fabrizio de Andre (Italy’s Jacques Brel) and the publishers Giulio Einaudi and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and many more. It was guided by master theoretician Palmiro Togliatti. Most of all, it was the organising force behind much of the resistance during WWII and emerged from that war in position to dominate the peace.

As well as the party’s dominant position among intellectuals, it established schools, social clubs, holiday clubs, summer camps, theatres. Even it’s songs are still recognised today – Bella Ciao is perhaps the most famous but Bandiera Rossa (here sung rather surprisingly by the big-band singer Claudio Villa in a CBS recording!) was second only to the Internationale as an anthem. It dominated the politics of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria and the towns of Bologna and Naples and regularly won cities such as Florence, Rome and Genoa. After 1975 it was the strongest party in all of the major cities in Italy. It always polled strongly in general elections, peaking in 1976 with 227 of 630 seats while it’s great rival Christian Democracy (CD) won 260 (under Giulio Andreotti who would subsequently be convicted of collaboration with the Mafia. See Paolo Sorrentino’s magnificent film Il Divo for an excellent portrayal of the man). The CD was formed from the rump of Mussolini’s fascists after the war, and had the open support of the USA and the Papacy, not to mention industrial and business forces and the owners of the latifondi or great landed estates.

As Lucio Magri, himself a former activist of the PCI and founder of the influential newspaper Il Manifesto, makes clear in this masterly assessment of the party’s place in Italian history, it was as guilty as anyone else of serious tactical, strategic and moral errors. It’s support for Stalin’s denunciation of Tito, for example, went beyond simply toeing the Cominform line, and deteriorated into vile personal abuse. It has always been the strategy of the Right to point to these gross errors, while ignoring its own. By way of example of this tactical blindness one need only point to the development of the Mafia and its close links with the Christian Democrats and the USA which was floundering around in the post-war years in search of anybody who might be anti-communist. But by themselves, these errors of judgement do not account for the party’s implosion. Nor does the fall of The Soviet Union, since the PCI had long ploughed a relatively independent furrow, basing much of its strategy on a Gramscian understanding of Marxist-Leninism rather than the Stalinist line, the so-called Italian Way. It condemned the suppression of the Prague Spring, for example, under the leadership of Enrico Berlinguer, and supported alternative approaches to socialism. It refused to support the Russian line against the Chinese Communist Party.

A number of crucial periods emerge from Magri’s ‘possible history’, and I would like to concentrate on two.

The first is the period in the early 1960s when the PCI was winning over 20% of the national vote. At that point an opening towards the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) looked promising. The PCI originally formed from a split with the socialists in Livorno in 1921. The PCI sought to create a united socialist front which would see many of the Left’s policies introduced. It was a historic opportunity to put a stop to the rampaging corruption of the Christian Democrats and their allies. A common platform was hammered out in the course of a series of meetings. One, for example, would be quite familiar to Irish readers. They sought to break the corrupt link between land developers and politicians, which saw the rezoning of land from farmland to housing and created many of the messes that encircle Italian (and, it goes without saying, Irish) cities. Another policy was to promote publicly owned companies as models of industrial development; yet another was a way of improving the life of Italy’s farmers; a prioritisation of the Mezzogiorno (the area from Rome south); a critique of consumerism; nationalisation of the power grid; a withholding tax on dividends; a unified secondary school system, and so on. Much agreement was achieved on a common platform. It was a historic moment since it was likely that both parties combined might win considerable gains in the 1963 election. In the event, the PCI won 25% (as opposed to a CD showing of 38%), making it the second largest party in the state. The PSI came in at 14% and reversed course to enter coalition with the Christian Democrats who subsequently outmanoeuvred them at every turn. The PCI feared that the Christian democrats had a strategy of drawing the PSI to the right, and its fears would prove true. In due course the socialists would find themselves embroiled in the same corruption as their coalition partners, and in the famous Mani Puliti investigations of the 1990s Bettino Craxi, the PSI leader, would be sentenced to 27 years in gaol and would flee to Tunisia and eventually die there. Ultimately a strong anti-communist streak in the PSI, together with CD leader Aldo Moro’s absolute opposition caused the PSI to fear falling between two stools. Lucio Magri’s assessment is clear: ‘It is reasonable to think that Italian history could have taken a different road, less rocky and more alive with opportunities for reform.’ Ultimately, he places the PSI decision to reject the PCI within an international context that saw socialist allies around Europe, especially The British Labour Party and the German Social Democratic Party, making a clear turn away from Marxism and towards what Blair would eventually call ‘the third way’, a compromise with capitalism that has robbed those parties of any intelligent critique of the system and implicated them in the worst excesses of capitalism, not to mention, in the Labour Party’s case, US adventuring in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But it is important to note also, that aside from the failure of the PSI negotiations, the powers arrayed against the PCI within Italy and abroad were colossal: the USA was implacably opposed and lent its support to any party that opposed the PCI; Italian industrialists and businesses, what Magri calls the ‘tight nexus of modernisation and backwardness’, not only opposed all communist organisations and trade unions, but also secretly funded the Right, including right-wing terrorism; the papacy supported the PD and in fact the party made two papal encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), the basis of their social policies; the various criminal organisations, especially the Mafia, were anti-communist, mainly because the party would not do business with them.

It would be easy to dismiss the PCI at this point as being no different from the bourgeois parties, mainly concerned with its own machinations towards power. However, Magri makes clear that the work undertaken towards creating a cross-party socialist front was founded on a belief that the parties shared a strong ideological base and that disunity favoured the Right.

The great strength of this book is the extent to which it depicts the inner workings of the party, and what emerges is a picture of a thriving ever-alert debate, the attempt to understand the continuous evolving form of capitalism and to respond to it in a way that was consistent with the ideals of communism and with the reality of social forms in a rapidly-changing Italy. A meeting in 1962 in the Gramsci Institute serves as a single example. In Magri’s account we see the PCI, already on its way to the huge electoral gains of 1963, sitting down to debate how best to respond to the wave of industrial action and factory unrest that was sweeping through the country, how to respond to the PSI and the powerful Catholic trade union movement, aware of theoretical developments in France and in American sociology. Magri himself stood on one side of this debate, a not insignificant figure, already making waves, and he is conscious of the necessity of applying to himself, for this ‘possible history of Italian communism’, the same measure of scrutiny that he applies to the actions of others. Togliatti was still alive at that point. He was to die suddenly the following year. 

The second episode that I would like to consider is what Magri calls Italy’s ‘Long ‘68’.  Whereas in many other countries the rebellion of the students suffered from a complete disconnection with the workers, in Italy the student rebellions came on the back of a long-standing struggle against the drive to greater productivity that was making workers’ lives a misery. In 1967 alone there were significant strikes in the steel, automobile and clothing industries. 3,878 separate industrial agreements were reached. In 1968, 100,000 FIAT workers went on strike and won. There was also the struggle against lower wages in the Mezzogiorno and a fight to improve the pension – in both huge gains were made. The tactics employed by the unions were remarkable and could still be used today, though many no doubt are now illegal. Equally significant was a reversal of the top-down organisation of unions so that by 1972 factory councils representing a million workers were controlled from below. Magri suggests a general political strategy at work, as laid down by Gramsci, that ‘the revolution had first to progress as a social movement before there could be any question of taking power.’

There is not sufficient space here to discuss Magri’s assessment of the student movements themselves. Suffice it to say he believes the PCI took the wrong line, essentially disregarding them as bourgeois uprisings, despite the fact that, as Magri himself acknowledges, the students made enormous and often successful efforts to connect with the workers, even going so far as to jointly establish new forms of unions outside of the established system. The situation was not helped by the student’s disdain for all of the established parties, among which they numbered the PCI. When one considers that among the initiatives that emerged from that long ’68 was Potere Operaio, founded by, among others, Antonio Negri (admittedly, already long engaged in a project to develop a new left outside of the PCI), it is surprising that the PCI did not seek to engage more strongly. That Togliatti was dead and Berlinguer had not yet come to power in the party can only be part of the answer, though Magri makes a strong case to suggest that Togliatti, before his death was already thinking in a more expansive way.

Another part of the answer concerns Magri himself and his friend Rosanna Rossanda who with others founded Il Manifesto, a newspaper which continues to this day and is closely associated with Le Monde Diplomatique. The newspaper, founded as a monthly journal, was intended to persuade the PCI leadership that it should engage with more leftist currents within the party, and in particular that it should allow greater freedom of discussion. At no point, he says, was it intended to challenge the pre-eminence of the party line, merely to allow other influences to affect it. In the event, he and his co-writers and co-editors were expelled from the party and cold-shouldered. It was a brutal excommunication, and an ill-judged one, for the Il Manifesto group were theorists and activists of the first order and committed communists.

Yet another missed opportunity of the sixties was the party’s failure to respond to the Second Vatican Council and the development of new left-wing Catholic organisations (it may come as a surprise to learn that Toni Negri had emerged from a radical leftist Catholic group in the 1950s!), despite the fact that many, probably a majority of, members of the PCI were Catholic or of Catholic background – the PCI had never required members to be atheists or Marxists, merely to share the broad aims of the party, despite the fact the the Pope excommunicated all communists after the war. Although Togliatti had made an important speech on the subject of openness to left-wing Catholicism, the party did not take up the challenge after his death. In Magri’s estimation, this was yet another missed opportunity. Together with the attempt to silence Il Manifesto and the disdain for the student revolts, it was, he suggests, an error of historic proportions that taken differently might have effected an enormous change for the better in Italian public life. It was a misunderstanding of the spirit of the times, or, in the case of the Vatican (and to misquote Marx) a misunderstanding of the spiritual aroma.

Perhaps, by 1970 the communist moment was already past in Italy, for the time being at least. Magri notes that the cadres who joined the party during the resistance were committed to action and prepared to devote a considerable portion of their lives to changing society. Later, the party received more votes but membership, requiring a certain amount of activism, declined. Under the leadership of Enrico Berlinguer, and at a time when a rightist coup d’état was very much in the air, in an atmosphere of right and left-wing terrorism, and economic paralysis, the party moved towards the so-called ‘historic compromise’, an accommodation with Christian Democracy. Berlinguer, son of a Sardegnan newspaper owner and related to highly placed members of the CD, was probably naturally drawn towards such compromise, unlike Togliatti who had grown up during the repression of the fascist era. Berlinguer too sought to exploit openings towards the Catholic Church. These were the ‘anni di piombo’ or ‘years of lead’. The PCI opposed the Red Brigades who in turn killed many PCI members and trade unionists who were close to them, and Magri suggests that part of the reason for the approach to the Vatican was to distance the party from the Brigades. The kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro in 1978 put an end to the historic compromise.

Under Berlinguer too the party changed its stance towards NATO, leading to complaints that the only interference in Italian politics that the PCI would not tolerate was that from Moscow. Ultimately, in 1981, Berlinguer would declare that ‘the progressive forces of the Soviet Union had been exhausted.’ This break (lo strappo) with Moscow facilitated Berlinguer’s disengagement with the communist states in general, and the development of so-called Eurocommunism, which in this writer’s view, failed to differentiate itself sufficiently from left-liberal and ‘third way’ currents on the Right and was, consequently, doomed to drift towards the centre.

Magri rejects the historic compromise, but equally rejects the charge that Berlinguer wanted to dispense with the party’s communist identity. He admits that the initial effect of Berlinguer’s leadership was a surge in support from moderate opinion, leading to the party’s peak electoral performance of 1976 (34.4%), but ultimately his strategy of secret negotiations with apparatuses and individuals, including the Vatican, led him into a blind-alley – the construction of a ‘modus operandi that has always characterised diplomatic relations between states.’ The implication is that Berlinguer was in effect breaking faith with the communist way. What followed, the defeat and dissolution of the great structure built by Gramsci and Togliatti and millions of ordinary Italians, many of whom gave their lives in the process, was ‘not a result of unforeseen events, tactical errors or hostile actions’, he says, but the inevitable result of Berlinguer’s strategy.

There had been other historic compromises, most notably under Togliatti, immediately after the war. Magri spends a little time comparing the two. Togliatti entered a national unity government immediately after the end of fascism. His aim was not mere government but to force the creation of a republic (as opposed to a return to monarchy or oligarchy) and to shape a progressive constitution. He won both battles. In other words, Togliatti set aside the revolutionary demands of the party in order to effect a limited but important social transformation that could be built upon, and was built upon, in the future. But the climate was different for Berlinguer. Magri argues that separating the idea of government from the need to transform society was a strategy doomed to failure in the specific conditions of the time.

There is much more. Magri’s analysis of the death of the party is forensic and unsparing. But the book ends on a chapter called ‘Envoi: A New Communist Identity’. Here Magri sets out his thinking for the way forward, not just for Italian communism, but for all the left. All I have time to do here is to recommend you read it.

A brief word on the translation. It seems to me that Patrick Camiller manages to convey the particular rhythm of the Italian language without once compromising the integrity of the text. The footnotes are particularly useful for those of us who are not completely familiar with the historical background.

For anyone who wishes to understand what happened not just to communism in Italy, but in many ways, the historical fate of communist parties outside of the USSR and China, this book is an invaluable insight.