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.)

In spring 1944, Togliatti returned from Moscow, instructed by Stalin to take charge of a divided Party uncertain about its political objectives. This is the starting point of Magri’s ‘possible history of the PCI’, though other historians would pay more attention to the heritage of the Comintern years, which, after all, had formed the cadres who now led the Party into the new era. The ‘Salerno turn’ shifted the Party sharply away from immediate revolution – later there was to be an embittered but pointless debate about whether a chance to take power during the Liberation had been squandered – and introduced three novel elements into the Communist movement. Unlike the French CP, the PCI now ceased to think in terms of a Leninist ‘vanguard’ and was deliberately reconstructed as a mass party, open even to Catholics. Magri’s view that training the corps of new leaders and functionaries created a second Leninist vanguard within the new mass party is not persuasive. The PCI’s major problem was to arise not from the massive new intake of the Resistance generation, but from the third generation of Communist leaders, born after 1940, who were systematically promoted to regenerate the leadership in the post-Togliatti period.

While this new mass party emerged as a party of the workers and peasants who constituted almost 80 per cent of its membership in 1946, its object was to become a leading national force. Hence the foundation of a new review under the symbolic title La Rinascita (‘Rebirth’ or ‘Renaissance’). Here the Party had an invaluable asset in the writings of Togliatti’s friend and predecessor Antonio Gramsci, by far the most original Marxist thinker of the 20th century. Last, the armed resistance of 1943-45, dominated by the Party, and in which at least half the Communist cadres of the new generation took part (that guerrilla of northern intellectuals, the Action Party, proved to have no lasting support base after 1945), was to allow the PCI to claim the mantle of Liberation more convincingly than anyone else. From then until the late 1970s, the history of Italian Communism is one of almost continuous political success and cultural influence, interrupted only by the brief setback of the 1948 elections and the onset of the Cold War, which removed it from participation in government until the 1990s. Its membership had reached half a million by 1944, 1.8 million by 1948, 2.1 million by 1953, stabilising at about 1.5 million in the 1960s and 1970s, but rising again to little short of two million in the 1970s. At the same time its share of the vote continued to increase steadily from 19 per cent in 1946, still a shade smaller than the Socialist Party to which it was allied until 1956, to a peak of 34 per cent in the mid-1970s (almost twice the official Socialists’ share). Optimists thought it might soon poll more than the Christian Democrats. By now, under the leadership of Togliatti’s successors, first Luigi Longo and then Enrico Berlinguer, the Party, heading a Eurocommunist movement, had established a clear distinction between its aims and those of the Soviet Union.

More than this, the PCI had won what looked like a lasting position of leadership – and a reputation for honesty and efficiency – in the local government of large areas of Italy, notably the ‘red belt’ of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria. From the 1970s, local alliances also brought it into office in the great cities. Even more impressive, and certainly unparalleled elsewhere, was the hegemony it established over Italian culture, and the contribution it made both to Italy’s modernisation and its renewed European presence, mainly thanks to the publishers, artists and film-makers who were either Party members or fellow travellers. Both Giulio Einaudi, at the time the finest publisher in Europe, and Italo Calvino formed part of the guard of honour at Togliatti’s funeral. Significant left-wing groups hostile to the PCI eventually emerged from the student movement of the late 1960s, of whom the terrorists of the Red Brigades were the most notable. It is difficult to think of another party formally excluded from government for almost half a century with such a powerful impact on its national life.

Togliatti’s role in this extraordinary story was central. Aldo Agosti’s admirably balanced and documented biography shows that it was not pursued as part of the long-term political strategy of a closet reformer: Togliatti was a long-term ‘monolithic’ Stalin loyalist and Comintern troubleshooter. Although we can only speculate about what went on in the head of this complex, subtle, acerbic but emotionally perceptive intellectual, all descriptions agree that he was ‘cold, controlled … closed within himself, little inclined to formulate conversations’, ‘inscrutable, sometimes sarcastic’. Public leadership brought a certain bonhomie ‘even though he did not have friends in the strict sense’. He never felt at ease as part of a crowd: he even refused to attend the great annual ritual of Italian Communist togetherness, the Festa de l’Unità. No doubt an inscrutable exterior was an asset to a man who spent 18 pseudonymous years, most of them in Stalin’s USSR, followed by another 20 in the labyrinth of Italian parliamentary politics and as the head of a party he could not entirely command, but had to win over.

Surface opacity probably concealed the problems he had in coming to terms with the complexities and contradictions implicit in his political commitment. Take his relations with Gramsci. The two men fell out in the 1920s, when Gramsci began to express criticism of Moscow while Togliatti insisted that the future of the movement required unconditional support for the USSR. This was to lead to unjustified accusations that he had not done enough to secure Gramsci’s release from jail – a deal Mussolini was prepared to make in 1933, but which seems to have been vetoed by Stalin himself.[1] In the early 1930s the Comintern chose to make Gramsci a non-person: there could be no mention of him in the PCI’s publications, or even in that characteristic document of the time, Togliatti’s own Comintern ‘autobiography’. But Togliatti maintained steady contact with Gramsci through the economist Piero Sraffa and did more than anyone else to secure the preservation and public impact of his prison writings. On Gramsci’s death in 1937 he could once again as Comintern spokesman openly express his admiration for his beloved ‘friend and master’, though in the worst year of the Terror Gramsci’s future in Italian Communism could be safeguarded only by presenting him as politically orthodox, which Togliatti well knew he was not. Is it surprising that someone in his position turned a permanent poker face to the world?

Nothing before 1950 suggests that Togliatti had the slightest doubt that, to quote Agosti, ‘socialist democracy, as expressed in the Soviet Union, was the most complete form of democracy possible,’ and that the USSR had to be defended unconditionally, since Soviet power was the essential guarantee of Communist success in the rest of the world. He was known as a reliable and efficient executor of current policy – most notably, as the Comintern’s chief civilian adviser in Spain during the Civil War – but not as an innovator; certainly he was slow to accept the policy of the ‘popular front’. There can be no doubt that in implementing the ‘Salerno turn’, Togliatti, who had discussed it with Stalin, was following the leader’s line, though he probably recognised better than anyone in Moscow the implications of a new mass party playing a national (i.e. supra-class) role in politics. His initial reaction to Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation speech in 1956 was equally cautious and evasive. And yet his years at the helm of the PCI are usually (and rightly) seen as a time of rupture with the old Leninist model of organisation and strategy, with its dependence on and uncritical support for the USSR, and perhaps above all with the Soviet model of socialism and its ‘suppression of democratic and personal freedoms’. Instead the model he had in mind was polycentric and democratic, allowing different roads to socialism, even ‘without the Communists being in charge’.[2]

The PCI’s shift was determined in large part by its historic situation. Both Stalin’s wartime policy and the subsequent Cold War excluded an Italian revolution. The country’s dramatic postwar transformation removed this possibility permanently from the agenda. The Party’s relationship to the postwar state was contradictory. It had been one of the main architects of Italy’s constitution, yet it was excluded from office after 1947 and had no clear prospect of getting back. But at least until 1948 most of its new members and a strong contingent of its old leaders, especially among the veterans of the armed resistance, continued to hope for a revolutionary takeover. Agosti and Magri agree that the PCI’s notorious doppiezza (‘duplicity’) under Togliatti was not intended to conceal revolutionary objectives behind a democratic discourse, but on the contrary to make a long-term accommodation with constitutional democratic politics easier to accept for the unreconstructed revolutionaries in its ranks. In the end the contradiction was to prove fatal to the PCI, but Togliatti, an almost mythical figure both to his friends and his adversaries, kept the conflict under control thanks to his own prestige and irreplaceability. This was not as easy as it may look in retrospect. Not the least problem was Stalin, always suspicious of those beyond his reach, who in 1951 proposed to kick Togliatti upstairs to head the new Cominform, the Communist Information Bureau, far from Italy. Probably he had in mind a more dependent PCI, like the French Party, perhaps under a different leadership. The move was supported by a large majority of the PCI leadership, mainly out of loyalty to the Baffone (the ‘big moustache’). Togliatti’s blank refusal to accept Stalin’s and his own Party’s diktat – a face-saving formula had to be found – was perhaps the major step in his emancipation from the Comintern past. For him the days of international hope were over: Italy was where the action was. But where could he lead the Party?

It’s now clear that it would not be on an Italian or indeed any ‘road to socialism’, though few in the PCI were openly prepared to advocate what actually happened: the PCI’s transformation into another European social democratic party. But so long as this issue was not officially confronted, the Party could envisage a bright future either by means of a Togliattian ‘historic compromise’ with the Christian Democrats, or by reviving the united front with the Socialists which had fallen apart in the 1950s. Both strategies failed, but their failure after 1980 doesn’t explain the subsequent collapse of Italian Communism, heralded by the Party’s change of name in 1991 and followed by multiple schisms, a total inability on the part of the left to capitalise on the collapse of the Demochristian-Socialist old regime in the corruption scandals of the early 1990s, its subsequent miserable record in government, its disintegration as a coherent national force, and Berlusconi’s unforeseen success in building a lasting majority based on anti-Communist rhetoric and the abandonment of anti-Fascism.

This decline and fall is the subject of Magri’s extremely shrewd and despondent book, whose epigraph, ‘I am a Trotta. Where do I go now?’, taken from Joseph Roth’s Capuchin Crypt, is the final cry of someone whose life belongs to a world that has gone for ever. Magri’s thesis is that changes in the international power configuration and the transformations of a globalising neoliberal capitalism, along with the exhaustion of the ‘propulsive impetus’ of the October Revolution, determined the decline of Italian Communism and the left. This is true enough, but applies too generally in Europe to explain the specific parabola of the PCI and its successor parties. More to the point, he stresses the Party’s inability to adjust to Italy’s sudden broken-backed leaps from backwardness into the late 20th century, compounded by the sharp turn to Catholic integralism under the Polish pope. There are sound reasons why Italian Communism has been most at ease in commercialised but not industrialised regions like Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria.[3]

Magri is clearly aware of the degeneration of Togliatti’s ‘mass party’ into a fund-raising electoral machine, which shifted its attention from the Party to the labour unions and from political to local and regional administration – and increasingly selected its best cadres accordingly. By the later 1980s it was still powerful but ageing, with more members over 70 than under 30 and fewer than 2 per cent under 25. The PCI had failed to attract either the children of the old ‘popolo comunista’ or the newly politicised young of 1968-70. And until 1992 there was no prospect of national government office to keep it afloat, as there was for social democratic parties like Labour or the German and French socialist parties.

The PCI finally got its chance when its two main rivals collapsed after the 1980s under the weight of their own corruption. But by then it was already well on the way to suicide. Demoralised and desperate for government, as the Berlin Wall fell it decided at short notice on wholesale iconoclasm in the vague hope that this would attract the hitherto sceptical masses. It proposed to drop the name and symbols of the Communist Party, indeed to abandon what Communism meant for most of its members and voters: the collective experience of anti-Fascist resistance and liberation that had given Italy democracy and modernity and poor Italians self-respect, confidence and hope in the future.

Since Salerno, a party based on revolutionary hope, but in practice committed to permanent, liberal-democratic reformism under a centrist leadership with a left-wing track record, had been held together by the refusal to choose between the two options. (Magri himself entered the Party well after the 1956 crisis, was expelled with the rest of the founders of the left-wing Manifesto movement in 1969, but rejoined in the mid-1980s.) That strategic indecision allowed it to survive potential divisions after Togliatti’s death, but 1989 forced the Party to make a choice and thus shattered its unity as well as its role as the only real national force on the Italian left. Between 1990 and 1993 the renamed PCI lost half its members, though its vote held up. The Party split in two: a reformist Democratic Party of the Left, which in 2007 became the Democratic Party and dissolved into even more unstable political coalitions, and a small militant party of unreconstructed radicals, Rifondazione Comunista. A considerable number of old Communists of all tendencies simply dropped out of politics, including several former national figures. In the elections of 2008 the left was swept away. The so-called Democratic Party may still provide the single largest bloc of voters for a post-Berlusconi government, but it is now only the largest component of a shifting, fissiparous and ideologically incoherent opposition. It has lost both its sense of the past and its sense of a future.

Magri’s title is inspired by an intervention during the debates on changing the Party’s name. Pietro Ingrao, a senior figure in the PCI, referred to Brecht’s poem about the tailor of 16th-century Ulm who claimed he could fly, was challenged by the bishop to prove it and crashed to his death. But, Brecht said in a postscript to the poem, many centuries later humanity did, after all, learn to fly. Nothing illustrates Italian Communism’s demoralisation more vividly than that Ingrao, the longtime standard-bearer of the left in the PCI, should, as it foundered, have called up the shade of the tailor of Ulm.

[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.’