Poker Face

Eric Hobsbawm

  • Palmiro Togliatti: A Biography by Aldo Agosti, translated by Vanna Derosas and Jane Ennis
    Tauris, 339 pp, £51.50, ISBN 1 84511 726 3
  • Il sarto di Ulm: Una possibile storia del PCI by Lucio Magri
    Il Saggiatore, 454 pp, €21.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 88 428 1608 9

The history of the 20th-century Communist movements that never acquired state power has been overshadowed by the extraordinary story of the rise and fall or self-transformation of the regimes inspired by the October Revolution. Within little more than 30 years of Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station, Russia had become a superpower, and one third of humanity was ruled by Communist parties. There had been nothing like it since the triumphal expansion of Islam in the seventh century. Forty years later, all these regimes between the Siberian shores of the Pacific, the Baltic and the Adriatic had gone and the major Asian Communist parties had recycled themselves into builders of capitalism. Except for two small and somewhat eccentric states, nothing remained of the hope that the world of the future would be one of centrally planned socialist societies.

The fortunes of non-state Communist movements were less spectacular, though they continue to generate a vast body of documentation, memoir and posthumous reflection. On the whole they were not as dangerous as governments – or more precisely their security services – imagined, given as these were to seeing the hand of Moscow and the menace of social revolution behind the few hundred, or at best the few thousand, who constituted the membership of most parties in the Communist International. Even when legal, few of them ever acquired a significant electorate or played a major part in the affairs of their country, though political insignificance was often combined with disproportionate importance in the country’s cultural life or its labour movement. The only exceptions in Europe between the wars were the Communist Parties of France, Finland, Czechoslovakia and (until 1933) Germany.

Anti-Fascism and the Second World War gave most European Communist Parties a second chance (Germany is an obvious exception), bringing them to the peak of their influence and indeed, from 1945 to 1947, of their participation in government. In France and Italy they even replaced the socialists as the largest electoral force on the left. Yet outside the Soviet zone of influence their history in Western countries has been one of fairly continuous decline since 1947, except in those countries where they remained illegal and engaged in resistance to authoritarian regimes, as in Spain and Portugal until the 1970s. By the 1990s almost all had vanished from their national political scenes except – a unique case – in Cyprus.

The parabola of the Italian Communist Party’s history is strikingly different, even though it also ended in failure and dissolution. It hardly benefited from the great wave of labour and democratic advance during and after the First World War, largely because Moscow rejected the clamour of the radicalised Socialist Party for affiliation and insisted on accepting only Leninist ‘vanguard parties’ into the Comintern, which it saw as the striking-force of an imminent world revolution. When Mussolini seized power in 1922 the PCI had hardly even established itself. Its record in Italy during the Fascist era (1922-43) was pitiful, though, thanks to the mass emigration of anti-Fascists, it had some success among the large working-class diaspora. In 1932, ten years after Mussolini’s March on Rome, it had fewer members than the tiny British CP – 2400 – and it failed to advance in the course of the decade; an increasingly critical Comintern seemed on the verge of writing it off at the end of the 1930s. Yet, curiously, Palmiro Togliatti, who led the Party from 1926 until his death in 1964, remained extremely prominent in the International during the whole of this period. Few books throw more light on the problem of Western Communism and on Italian Communist history than Aldo Agosti’s revised and updated biography of this remarkable man and political intelligence.

The fall of Mussolini in 1943 (to which the anti-Fascists had contributed nothing) found a Communist Party consisting of between three and five thousand men and women, returning from jail or emigration, mainly of pre-Fascist vintage. Promising as the Party’s future looked, its spectacular growth and transformation were made possible by the unexpected failure of the Allied invasion of Italy, which left large areas under German and Fascist rule, giving the anti-Fascist resistance a far larger role in the country’s liberation than the opposition could have had in comprehensively defeated Japan and Germany. The point is well made in Lucio Magri’s highly intelligent, melancholy retrospect on the PCI’s eventual self-destruction. The 12 months between the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 and the German surrender allowed the PCI, by that time the chief force in the largest armed resistance movement in Europe after those in Belorussia and Yugoslavia, to become a genuine popular and national party and a party of government while maintaining its bona fides as the party of the October Revolution. (Interestingly, most of the prominent Communists to emerge in the Resistance years came from apolitical or even conformist backgrounds.)

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[1] See Gramsci tra Mussolini e Stalin by A. Rossi and G. Vacca (2007).

[2] There is an illuminating comparison to be made between him and Herbert Wehner, another survivor of Stalin’s Terror, who became a major social-democratic figure in the German Federal Republic. However, unlike Togliatti, he had broken with the Party.

[3] As Renato Zangheri, the brilliantly successful mayor of Bologna, said to me in the 1970s: ‘We turned down an offer from one of the biggest industrial concerns to shift their main plant here. Small business, private or co-operative, city or agrarian, we know where we are. Big industry would be unpredictable.’