Italian Communism, 1956

The downgrading of Stalin has precipitated a noticeable drift in Italian politics away from the Communist line and a spreading disillusion among intellectuals alma the chances of achieving social justice through Communism. This was so well expressed by a former Party member, PAOLO PAVOLINI,that a reader of the Atlantic,A. Frank Schwarz, an industrial engineer who was born in Milan and is now an American citizen, secured permission to translate Mr. Pavolini’s article, which originally appeared in Il Mondo, the Italian periodical published in Rome.


I HAD not seen Giovanni for a long time, sine e he had gone to Rome to take an important job on the National Committee of the Italian Communist Party. We had been through high school and college together, fought side by side in the anli-Fascist underground. An entirely different political outlook had not prevented me from feeling a deep bond of friendship and admiration for him.

After the usual greetings, the exchange of family news, our conversation quickly shifted to polities: “Did you come to Florence on a Party assignment?”— “No, I’m here on business, traveling for a sporting goods manufacturer; had to straighten out some accounts.”

I looked at him with astonishment: for years the Communist Party had been father and mother to him; Party work had absorbed all his energies, all his waking hours. He wrote for the Party paper L’Unità, contributed to political magazines, wrote pamphlets, translated foreign propaganda material. I could not see how he would ever find time for anything else.

Giovanni smiled and we started off for a long walk in the Florentine sunshine. For an hour he talked on and on, pouring out all the intimate story of these last years: —

Don’t be surprised. Actually, you have won this battle. The Communist Party, the proletarian revolution, all the power to the working class — all this is finished, out, kaputt. The Party is living in the past; the future is no longer ours.

Remember 1947 and 1948? Writers and artists like Vittorini, Gat to, Ferrata, were leaving the Party at that time. They were the men with the complexes—soft, melancholy soul-searchers with their doubts and problems. They were leaving us, but we stood fast — we, the strong intellectual core of the Party.

But now, for the last few months, one by one we have been quietly leaving the ranks. Our literary magazines no longer follow the Party line; a former ranking member of the Central Committee is again an art critic, another is dabbling in show business.

I spend my afternoons selling tennis rackets and boxing gloves.

Every day some intellectual leaves his Party activity, quits his official job, makes a fresh start in life as a lawyer, a teacher, a writer, or a clerk. We have carried on for ten years; now we are beginning to give up.

Why? Because the revolution will never come to Italy and we are beginning to realize it. That’s not because Uncle Joe is gone and the Cominform dissolved, but because the revolution has become impossible, absurd. The old romantic revolutionary feeling is gone, the proletarian myth is over. At Party Headquarters they know it well but do nothing about it. The Party cannot react to the ebbing away of its “intelligentsia.” They know that not only the intellectuals are getting tired of being Communists, but the workers, the farmers, even the unemployed mob.

Remember Senator Secchia, the old revolutionary leader? His case is typical; his downfall last year was the beginning of the end. For years the Party had been built like a big house, with a front and an inside. The front had a solid appearance of legality and democratic trappings, to be used until something better would come along. But inside were the many separate rooms, the obscure corridors and secret corners where the revolutionary upheaval was being prepared for the right moment. The building was seemingly a good structure— good for a democracy or a revolutionary climate, like one of those convertible cars. Actually it was no good at all: the respectable boys around Togliatti out front trying to quiet down the wild revolutionists inside, while the revolutionists kept right on pushing toward action in the streets. Secchia was the head of this hidden “apparatus,” as they call it, preparing the armed revolution in blind secrecy and unquestioning devotion, ignoring Togliatti and the latest twists in the Party line. Finally Secchia’s game was up. His secret caches of arms were getting rusty and useless (the police were finding more and more of them, destroying them systematically). His activity had to be discontinued, the Party bosses decided; they fired Secchia like an unfaithful bank clerk.

They thought they had liquidated one man; in their blindness they did not realize that they had actually started their general downfall. One of Secchia’s chores had been the collection of Party dues on a national scale, to finance his coming revolution. Suddenly the small Party members who had hopefully and fearfully paid their dues for years failed to attend their cell meetings, rediscovered old family obligations, stopped paying.

As if this were not enough, we had the fall-out with the unions. You know how the Party had always pampered the CGIL, the mighty Italian Confederation of Labor; here was their best support, the strongest and purest expression of the working class. This spring, as so many times before, we had union elections in many plants in the industrial north. We sat back, confidently waiting for the usual returns. But we were roundly defeated instead. The democratic and Catholic unions won a majority representation in many plants. Our Central Commit tee was scheduled to analyze the causes of this defeat in the light of Marxist doctrine and explain it to the faithful, but the explanation meeting was postponed several times and finally never came off. Privately the Party bosses tried to justify this defeat with all kinds of excuses, covering up the fact that of their own free will a large majority of workers had voted for the democratic unions. The incredible had happened: the workers had deserted their party!

By Communist definition the worker was supposed to be humble and downtrodden, exploited and raped by heartless capitalistic bosses. He alone, the workingman, could redeem an entire corrupt society, carrying the torch of the coming revolution. But in these years since the end of the war the workers gradually improved their standard of living, purchased radios, small appliances, motorscooters, enjoyed more leisure time, and approached a middle-class status. This was obvious to any intelligent observer, but not to the Communist labor leaders, rooted in their Marxist idea of the workers toiling under the capitalistic whip.

Thus the Communist unions were engaged on many fronts, except the only good one. They fought management, the government, the different political parties, the non-Communist unions, Western imperialism, American aid, and NATO. While fighting all these windmills at once, they did not attack their real enemy, for the simple reason that it could not be attacked. The enemy was the progressive improvement of the working class.

You know, over at Party Headquarters we had something like a standard dictionary, full of neat little definitions. The capitalist? “A ruthless, bloodthirsty Fascist, the lazy, ignorant exploiter of the proletariat.” This type of boss might have belonged to the nineteenth century, but he had nothing to do with today’s “human relations expert,”the new plant manager bent on improving the working and living conditions of his employees, aiming at changing his workers into consumers of their own products. We used to laugh at these things in the past, calling them democratic hogwash. Yet they defeated us in the end.

We had no definition in our dictionary for the new type of Italian industrial leader, who is willing to plow back the profits of his industry to expand his facilities, and who is creating more jobs and better opportunities for all. This is a new type of manager, serious, dedicated, maybe somewhat dull in his efficiency, but somebody to reckon with, to be answered with brains, not with revolutionary force.

The same thing happened on the farm. The old term landlord had a solid, definite meaning in our vocabulary, but we had no definition for a land improvement association, a canners’ exchange, a cooperative packing plant. Blindly the Communist members of Parliament sided with the extreme right, the monarchists and Fascists in voting against land reform, the Reclamation Act of 1951, the great Development Fund for Southern Italy. We voted against these far-reaching acts, out of spite and narrow Party bickering, because these were acts of a free democracy in which we did not want any part. And at the same time the peasants were pulling out of their century-old destitution; for the first time they were getting their own land and new houses and barns and cattle.

The landlords’ empire was shrinking, their influence waning, but our unions kept right on screaming against them, never looking at the new economic bodies growing around us. Here again we were prisoners of our own Marxist schemes. The Communist leaders are on the defensive today; they have given up organizing the long-range political action of the working classes and are following a small-scale unionism at the factory and farm levels, thus competing with the democratic unions which have followed this down-to-earth course for years.

The political story is again the same. Our textbooks were clear: Liberals, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats—all were the enemies of the working class, disguised Fascists, whose few concessions to the workers were made only under pressure, while their true intention was the final crushing of the proletariat. Yet we find today, after these many years of hammering the same propaganda line, that when President Gronchi visits any small village, our Communist women proudly show him their babies, and the local Party bosses seem anxious to shake the presidential hand.

Our Communist leaders are living in the past. Togliatti is working on an erudite study of the government activity of the late President De Gasperi. That old firebrand Longo spends his days at Party Headquarters, rearranging old files, reminiscing about the years of the resistance fights, talking to himself because no one listens to him. The parliamentary leader Terracini misses many sessions, preferring long walks in the lovely Roman countryside, or calling up the newspaper critics to ask for favorable reports on his wife’s theatrical activities.

There was a time, not so long ago, when at every Party meeting, down to the smallest mountain village, Togliatti’s word was read and explained to the membership. No longer; today Togliatti has abandoned his old line. He attacks the “cult of the personality,” openly admitting the Party’s faults and failures but implying that he, Togliatti, had been right all along, and blaming his subordinates for the general downfall. Nobody dares to protest in public, but after each meeting the halls are now full of accusations: “We have always done what he told us. Now that things are going bad, the fat old pig tries to blame it all on us!”

You know, no general can afford to accuse his troops of cowardice or incompetence after a defeat in battle. If he does, it is because deep inside he knows that the war has been lost.

We had reached the bridge and stopped to look at the river, the soft curve of the embankments lined with noble old brown palazzi, the bell towers and domes soaring from above the red-tiled roofs, the dark green hills in the background. Giovanni added with a soft voice, looking into the distance: “It was a great party. When you democrats were exhausted and discouraged after the many years of underground fighting against the Fascist tyranny, it was the Communists alone who carried on with the fight for another ten years. I wonder if you can ever feel the warmth of a real mass movement, being close to the humblest and poorest of our people, feeling their devoted and loving fellowship.

“We were then right in the center of their toil and suffering, guiding and comforting those simple people, attacking their enemies, living with them and for them, every day of the year. It all seemed so simple and natural: the Marxist theories explained everything, seemed to have an answer to every problem of our social life.

“Today the Italian workers and peasants are different from those of ten and twenty years ago: under the dictator they were a mob, today they are a people. But don’t forget, it was we who were their guides and relentless drivers. We made halfilliterate peasants into Party functionaries; they became capable, active, modern individuals, with a newly discovered political culture, fairly good manners, improved working capacity. Through us they became part of management, if only a political party management. This was our gift to the count ry.

“And yet, just as these small people improved their conditions, they lost that Communist feeling, they became more and more part of the middle class.

“We are still proud of our work. There was a time when people like us left the Party with shouting and door-slamming. We are leaving it today on tiptoes, avoiding those empty gestures but well aware that this is the end. Our youth was allowed to extend an additional ten years of fight ing, polemizing, and parliamentary battles, while you, our former friends, settled down in political respectability.

“Now life takes over. We must think of our wives, of the children for whom we have been so far unable to build a solid tomorrow. They will never feel the heat of revolutionary fire. The wives of our old schoolmates have nice dresses and comfortable homes, their children are off with a tremendous head start over ours.

“Don’t get me wrong: we don’t complain or renege. We are just tired, that’s all. The day is ended, the battle is over. A few more years and they will consider our Italian Communists as we consider today the anarchists of thirty years ago: a small band of softhearted, harmless bomb-throwers. Our old Party wheel-horses will stay on, spending their small lives at Party Headquarters, in the dusty deserted section offices. They will stay on, their old revolutionary fire all gone, and earnestly debate in the light of Marxist theory the need of teaching Latin in the public schools.”