Hal Draper


Silone’s Politics – Then and Now

(April 1956)

From Labor Action, Vol. XX No. 14, 2 April 1956, pp. 7–8.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by A.Forse for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Despite the difficulties, let us try again to keep the spotlight on the political problem to which our Open Letter was devoted – the question of socialist policy on the war camps into which the world is divided.

Our Open Letter tried to put aside all other matters which Silone had raised in his article, My Political Faith, in order to concentrate on this only. We would still like to do that.

But for raising such questions in our Open Letter, we now find ourselves scolded by Silone with a series of epithets which he apparently finds necessary for a rounded exposition of his thinking: it was “insolence” ... “little exasperated epigones”’ ... we are “inquisitorial” like McCarthyites and, being “American extremists,” we are imitating our “persecutors” ... no “conception of liberty and intellectual fairness” ... “slanderous” ... “gratuitous insult” ... and there are more such amiable expressions designed to underline Silone’s contrasting intellectual tolerance and dispassionate objectivity, so different from our own insolence in raising gravely embarrassing questions.

It is a good thing, as he says, that he was not moved by “bad humor” when he wrote all this.

But as we did in our Open Letter in the case of Silone’s previous invective against “imbeciles” and “little would-be politicians” and “communist deviationists” and other hopeless objects of scorn, let us put it all to one side in order to keep political questions on the floor.

Let us put aside also a more valuable aspect of Silone’s second round: those passages, in the latter part of his article, where he speaks in a personal vein of the tension between his life as a creative artist and as a political leader. We put it aside not because it is uninteresting – on the contrary! – nor because it is irrelevant, for surely Silone’s peculiar political course is illuminated somewhat at least, from the subjective side, by his personal explanations.

There is another thing in this connection; I take full responsibility only for my literary work, says Silone in effect; “whoever wishes to criticise me, should take my books.” in the long run, this may well be true, for in the long run whoever wishes to criticise Silone will take his books and not the polemical and programmatic writings left along his political path.

But more immediately a man who is also an artist must still expect to be taken at his word when he chooses to write in the different capacity of political leader and ideologist. Artists who, wisely or unwisely, also choose to be politicians should reply to political criticism as political persons.

So it was exclusively with the political questions that our Open Letter dealt and that we deal now.

What We Asked

Our Open Letter asked Silone: “Why have you abandoned the ideas of Third Camp internationalism” which you held when the war broke out? And then we tried to examine this conception of Third Camp anti-war socialism in terms of the very document to which Silone himself had referred us: his excellent statement of his anti-war position in a Partisan Review interview of 1939, which we reprinted separately.

In the looming war between the bourgeois democracies and the fascist states Silone indicated in his interview as we read it – he was in favour of supporting neither war camp. “Real peace depends today on the rapidity with which a third front is created ... This third front did once actually exist in the form of revolutionary Russia and of militant workers’ parties elsewhere ... “

The thought seems quite clear: the “Third Front” (or “Third Camp”) means building a revolutionary socialist opposition to both war blocs, both the bourgeois-democratic bloc and the fascist bloc.

But at this time, just as a little later, the concepts of “collective security” to “stop fascism” were already long ascendant among social-democrats and liberals, together with the stock arguments which they used against that Third Camp approach. These arguments did not spring up only after the start of “Hitler’s war.”

The “partisans of collective security” to whom Silone himself referred in this 1939 document had, for years already, been arguing that the Third Camp policy was “foolishness”: first defeat Hitler – to preserve democracy – then go ahead and fight for socialism if you insist; but first settle with the fascists. Bourgeois democracy has its imperfections, to be sure, but it is far better than fascism; let us first defeat the common menace and then think about going forward from there ...

Anti-War Line

It was precisely against this dominant conception that Silone polemicised in his 1939 interview, even though he realized, he said, that “the revolutionary writer must risk isolation” in advancing such a Third Front.

“The dilemma: status quo or regression” is a false presentation of alternatives, he argued. “The reactionary trend of our epoch” is shown by the fact that “Most of the progressive forces ... are content to struggle to preserve the existing order, lest they fall under the fascist yoke,” and so the Third Front is not built.

But support of capitalism will not stop fascism, he went on to argue. (All along here we asked our readers to apply Silone’s train of thought to the present case of the Stalinist totalitarian menace.) “Fascism’s power, its mass appeal, its contagious influence, all are due to the fact that fascism means false solutions, easy solutions, ersatz solutions but, all the same, solutions of the real problems of our time.” But capitalism (“conservative democracy”) has no solution of these problems.

Socialism has. “When the socialists, with the best possible anti-fascist [read: anti-Stalinist] intentions, renounce their own programme, put their own theories in mothballs and accept the negative positions of conservative democracy, they think they are doing their bit in the struggle to crush fascism [Stalinism]. Actually, they leave to fascism [Stalinism] the distinction of alone daring to bring forward in public certain problems, thus driving into the fascists’ [Stalinists’] arms thousands of workers who not accept the status quo.”

Our Open Letter inquired: “is this not a hundred times truer today?” Isn’t this what accounts for Stalinism’s “power, its mass appeal, its contagious influence” from Rome to Bandung?

Very carefully Silone-1939 made clear that he did not equate bourgeois democracy with fascism, nor was he derogatory of the value of bourgeois freedoms. He was obviously aware of the existence of gentlemen who like to reduce all politics to that incontrovertible distinction. It was a question of how to fight fascism – by supporting one imperialist war bloc against another, or by fighting for a socialist transformation of society against both? – just as it is now a question of how to fight totalitarian Stalinism, which is able to win victories today only insofar as it can convince its victims that the only realistic alternative to its own rule is the continued rule of the old discredited system of capitalism.

He Has Learned ...

Now, when we direct Silone’s attention to his brilliant argument, and ask “Why did you change?” he replies merely by summarising in three sentences precisely the political position which he had torn apart and stomped on in his 1939 document: “The victory of Hitler would have meant the destruction for a long time of the premise for any political activity whatever ...” and so on. He introduces this by hailing it in advance as “irrefutable,” as if he had never even heard of it before his conversion to its ineluctable logic.

Maybe so, but in that case one of the many Mothball Socialists who he had scorned in 1939 has a right to ask: “Dear Comrade Silone, but this is exactly, word for word, what we were telling you in the 1930s when you were bemused by the sectarian madness and extremist nonsense that you called the Third Front. It is late but it is nice to see that you have learned.”

This would be quite in order, though men have a right to change their mind.

We do not begrudge Silone the exercise of this right. We insist only that political accounts not be juggled. Silone insists that he has not changed his viewpoint.

It is objective conditions that have changed, you see. He was right then, and he is right now. And in between he was right all through the various intermediate shadings he went through as he switched over from a critical partisan of the Third Camp to a critical partisan of the Atlantic war bloc ...

Concocted quote

To make this account balance is, under the circumstances, a feat that takes some doing, of course, and not all of his methods would be approved by all of the characters in Bread and Wine. He launches his exposition, for example, with what purports to be a quotation from our Open Letter, or at least so the innocent reader would assume. “Labor Action asks” writes Silone in his fourth paragraph and he follows these words with a colon and a passage enclosed in quotation marks.

This quoted passage was concocted by Silone alone and appears nowhere in our Open Letter or anywhere else. This accounts also for its language about “betrayal of the international proletariat.”

That might not be so bad. But it is not even a paraphrase of anything in our Open Letter.

This “embarrassing question” which Silone has invented (in order to show how easily he can escape from the odious traps set for him by American inquisitors) is adapted by him from the beginning of his own [1939] interview, which began as follows:

“Q: In the event of a war between Italy and France, which country would you favour?

“A: Tunisia.

“Q: What do you mean?”

Whereupon Silone proceeded to expound what we have already summarised, without any further reference to the little witticism about Tunisia but as a political position on the war blocs.

Now see how Silone has tailored his fabricated “quotation” from Labor Action undeterred by the fact that our Open Letter had not bothered to mention this initial by-play about Tunisia, let alone pose questions to Silone about it.


It enables him to maintain that his views have not changed. “Even today,” he insists, in a war “between two states over the possession of Morocco,” I would still answer similarly ...

The fabrication is convenient. For one thing, having “quoted” Labor Action’s non-existent embarrassing question, he is relieved of the embarrassment of taking up what we did pose questions about.

But even so, the dodge is not quite satisfactory.

The Second World War did not break out over possession of Tunisia – not Tunisia alone. No one expected it would, in spite of the little whimsy. The colonial and imperialist stakes were much more extensive, extending even into European territory itself. It broke out over many Tunisias. What exactly does this change for a principled policy on the war?

The third world war is not likely to break out as a result of a conflict of two states over Morocco, so that Silone can show us his good faith by supporting “Morocco”. This threatened war is, as everybody knows, likely to break out as a conflict of two blocs for control of – all the peoples of the world. Should we not then support the latter against both contending war blocs, Mr Silone, if you have indeed been right all along, before, after and during all your changes?

But this is only playing with phrases, that is, Silone’s phrases. There is not political content to them. Silone, unfortunately, is only interested autobiographically in squaring this past with the present, not with facing the meaning of his political switch.


Inevitably political amnesia sets in, an occupational disease of political figures who try to prove that they have always been right, even when they were an opposite sides of a question:

(1) As the alternative to his switchover, he denounces “anti-war-sabotage actions” (our italics). Has he really and truly forgotten that anti-war socialist fighters have always rejected “sabotage” as a course of action, as Lenin did specifically during the First World War?

Yes, we suppose he has forgotten this along with much else.

(2) As the alternative to his own switchover, he poses the “absolute intransigence” of ... a notorious ultra-super-sectarian named Bordiga! But not only that.

According to Silone (I do not know, myself) this Bordiga, the genuine dyed-in-the-wool guaranteed “intransigent” article in anti-war goods, thought that Hitler’s victory would smooth the road to proletarian revolution! The unwary reader might get the impression, which of course Silone cannot possibly want to convey, that he is saying: If you’re against this imperialist war, you must be “pro-German?” at least “objectively” ... To people with a better memory than Silone’s, this again has a familiar ring.

Writer or leader?

So much for the first of the “two arguments” which Silone says he will adduce. The second we do not quite understand insofar as it bears on the switchover. This second argument, says Silone, is the fact that in 1939 he was a “socialist writer” but later he became a “socialist leader.”

Clearly this can not mean that it is correct to be for the Third Camp when you are merely a socialist writer, but that when you reach the exalted station of Socialist Leader more “practical” policies are called for. Therefore we do not understand it.

One other thing we do not claim to understand exactly. In a parenthetical clause, Silone says that he does not like the Atlantic Pact, as we already know, but refers to his “critical and conditional acceptance [of the Pact] after it had become a law of the state.”

What if any is this relation between “accepting” the Pact, i.e., becoming a “critical and conditional” supporter of the Pact, and the “law of the state”? We do not understand it.

The Principled Man

Silone sums up his “principled position” today as: “pacifist and libertarian”. That is very nice. But there is a certain irony about it.

Once Ignazio Silone was a revolutionary socialist, and he was an anti-war fighter then. Now he is in “principle” for pacifism and he becomes a supporter of the Atlantic war bloc.

Once Ignazio Silone put the fight for socialist democracy as the task of the day. Now he has graduated to the principled rank of “libertarian” – and so he defends Sidney Hook against our “slander” as well as the Cultural Freedom outfit – particularly Sidney Hook, he says.

Does that mean that he defends the “libertarian” Hook position on witch-hunting Stalinists – ousting Stalinist teachers from their jobs, for example, for which the man is noted in this country? Is he a defender of the Sidney Hook position on cracking down on Stalinists as members of a “conspiracy”?

If so, does he advocate this position in Italy? Or are “objective conditions” – those handy things – such that Sidney Hook is right for the United States but wrong for Italy?

Would Silone keep Sidney Hook’s discreet silence about police-actions to put the whole leadership of the Italian Communist Party in jail on the charge simply that they are leaders of a Communist Party as has been true in this country?

Would Silone keep his mouth shut – like Sidney Hook, the leader of his “Cultural Freedom” libertarians – while teachers who are known to have broken with the CP but who refuse to turn stool-pigeon and informer in order to point the finger at other ex-CPers are fired from their jobs after refusing to testify on constitutional (Fifth Amendment) grounds?

Would Silone go along with the refusal by the American Committee for Cultural Freedom to condemn the infamous and racist American anti-alien and immigration act?

The Worm Within

Silone retorts “Slander!” – it seems to be becoming a habit of his – perhaps because he thinks we are referring to some private information of our own about these American friends of his “pacifist and libertarian” principles. No, we have none. We are referring to their public and well known positions.

In Italy, socialists and democrats have a duty to bring before public opinion – and in the first place, before socialist opinion – the nature of these American political friends of Italian socialist figures who pose as libertarians or who want to be libertarians. Silone should be forced to take a public statement as to whether he agrees or disagrees with Hookism on civil liberties, now that he has gone out of his way to solidarise himself with “particularly Sidney Hook.”

Pacifist and libertarian! “In no century have words been perverted from their natural purpose of putting man in touch with man as they are today,” says Dori Paolo in Bread and Wine. “To speak and to deceive (often to deceive oneself) have become almost synonymous.”

And an old man says later: “Each one of us has within himself his own thief, or his own worm, or his own hail ... One must frankly admit that in the post war years the circumstances were ideal for the thieves, worms, and hail that each one of us carries about within him. But that does not absolve any of us of responsibility.”

Last updated on: 24 February 2015