Ignazio Silone

Silone’s Reply to Our Open Letter

‘My Political Faith’, Second Round

(March 1956)

From Labor Action, Vol. XX No. 14, 2 April 1956, p. 6.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by A.Forse for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In reply to my article which it published January 31 entitled My Political Faith (and reprinted in Italy by Giustizia among others, under the title A Socialist Writer), Labor Action has renewed the discussion with an Open Letter on February 6, in which it posed to me a score of questions, of an ideological, political and ethical nature all more or less pertaining to the actions of socialists during the last world war and their current attitude toward the military blocs.

The tone of the Open Letter is inevitably the one that is characteristic of dissident communists, those little exasperated epigones of Trotsky and Lenin: that is to say, it varies between insolence, and pseudo-doctrine, and what is more — since we are dealing with American extremists — with a distinctive inquisitorial accent that horribly re-echoes the interrogations of their now famous Committee on Un-American Activities. There is something strange about this, since the urge to imitate, in discussions with their friends, the odious manners of their own persecutors, has always been one of the satisfactions of the persecuted. To which one must add the fact that these American extremists, in contrast with their European comrades, have never participated in a broad workers’ movement, and as a result of the environment in which they have developed, they are scarcely endowed with a conception of liberty and, intellectual fairness, and even from Marxism they have assimilated only the crudest and by now outmoded aspects.

Despite this and the limited time available to me, I wish to reply to their Open Letter since we are dealing here with a non-conformist journal which has — or so it would seem — a hard life. Christian and socialist education creates these obligations also: one must be kind to one’s persecutors even if they talk nonsense. I must add that it will never be polemics, no matter how bitter, that will drive me further away from these extremists than I already am, since I have learned to establish my line of conduct on the basis of reasoning and not bad humor. It goes without saying that I consider myself excused from the need to reply to purely rhetorical or pseudo-witty questions such as: if Silone considers the various ideologies handed down to us from the last, centuries to be in crisis, why not also bourgeois democracy?

Two arguments

I will reply instead to a serious question to which I have already replied on previous occasions, but repetita juvant. Thinking, to embarrass me gravely, Labor Action asks:

“In 1939, before the outbreak of the great war in an interview with an American writer in Partisan Review, to the question: In case of conflict between France and Italy for control of Tunisia, which side would you support? —you replied: The side of Tunisia; but on the contrary a year later you came out in support, albeit critical, of the democratic powers in the war against the Axis. How do you explain this betrayal of the international proletariat?”

I reply with two arguments — one with regard to the different character of the Second World War as compared with the hypothetical conflict between Fascist Italy and France over the possession of Tunisia; the other concerning the change in my personal responsibility from an independent writer, which I already was in 1939, to the socialist leader which I became as a result of the requests of Italian socialist ?migr?s in France, who were placed in the position of not being able to act any longer because of the German occupation.

It seems to me that my first argument is irrefutable and well-founded. Even today, if I should be asked: “If a war should break out between two states over the possession of Morocco, which side would you support?” I would reply without hesitation: “The side of the Moroccans.” But Hitler’s war was another matter. The victory of Hitler would have meant the destruction for a long time of the premise for any political activity whatever and hence also for the struggle for socialism. Anti-war sabotage actions on the part of Western workers’ organisations would have led to this. It would have been a collective suicide. On this there was agreement also among the few old internationalists of the Zimmerwald period who were still alive in 1940: Modigliani, Balabanoff, Rosmer, Monatte, and the head of the international religious socialists Leonhard Ragaz. For me the problem was a different one: one must not identify the cause of socialism and liberty with the belligerent states, one must safeguard socialist independence. In my opinion, during those years this was the most radical position within European socialism since, starting from the necessity of defeating Nazism, the majority of socialists were collaborating with the military apparatus of the democratic states and in no way differentiated themselves in their propaganda. I know only of a single case of absolute intransigence: that of the Neapolitan, Amadeo Bordiga, who was of the opinion that the two belligerent blocs were “objectively” identical, and that, rather, Hitler’s victory, destroying Anglo-Saxon imperialism, would have smoothed the road to proletarian revolution ... This was madness.

A tension

To suppose that my point of view was inspired by expediency is a gratuitous insult. I remained in Switzerland, for the anti-fascist struggle, despite repeated offers of an American visa, even when a Nazi occupation appeared imminent. But I was also aware that my platform of a “Third Front” was a compromise between the spirit of Zimmerwald and the new reality of Nazism. Precisely in those years (1940–41) I wrote The Seed Beneath the Snow. This novel was a poet’s revenge against contingent reality; for me, almost a biological need. That book appeared during the war and everywhere aroused the impression (typical, for example, was the criticism in Partisan Review) that I had definitely withdrawn from politics. Instead, as I say, I had begun to write that book precisely at the time when I had just recently accepted a political post, albeit a clandestine one. The distance in ideas during those years between my pamphlets, my articles, my practical political work, and that serene and stoical atmosphere of The Seed Beneath the Snow reveals precisely the extreme tension in which I found myself. Certainly, revolutionary consciousness, when it includes both the duty of political struggle and the transcendence of the present in one’s thinking, embraces a dimension which is almost inhuman and ultimately even unbearable.


With this, I feel I have implicitly replied even to the other objections on military pacts. On this point the difference with Labor Action is substantial. But it is not a personal difference of mine, because both the aversion to the Atlantic Pact as well as the critical and conditional acceptance after it had become a law of the state, I shared with the unanimous leadership of the PSU (United Socialist Party) of which I was a part. But I do not at all intend to give the impression that I want to escape from my past responsibilities, while I must still make clear that for me today every discussion of political tactics has only a retrospective value. When one is a socialist but does not actively participate in an organized movement, the only interesting problems are problems of principle and not tactics. My principled position is pacifist and libertarian. So long as I was a militant of the PSU, I saw the political problem in these terms (forgive me the horrible Stalinist jargon): how to link tactics with strategy. Tactics demand that one not lose contact with existing reality, without being absorbed by it. For the great danger in defending the liberties which we may lose is that of becoming conservative. The defense must be carried out therefore with the maximum of independence, for with the maximum of independence the most desperate situation the demands that go beyond the existing order.


The duty of the writer is a good deal simpler. It may even be that my instinctive inability to endure active political life is simply the inability to endure the necessary tactical compromises. The writer, and even the socialist writer, has the duty of keeping clear of the claims of the apparatus, and of refusing to become a propagandist.

The socialist writer betrays his mission if he does not depict human suffering and does not embody in his writings the sense of the true and the just that springs to birth in the humble and the oppressed. I certainly do not consider myself free of weaknesses and contradictions, and I confess moreover that I am not made of steel or aluminum; but whoever wishes to criticize me should take my books. Only in them do I wholly recognize myself. The others are only partial images, already superseded by myself.

I hold to nothing as tenaciously as to my independence as a socialist writer. To believe that I can give up my liberty in this or that association of intellectuals — what foolishness. But I must add that I reject once again the slanderous appraisal that Labor Action wants to give to the International Congress for Cultural Freedom and particularly to Sidney Hook.

From all accounts, it is a united front of intellectuals in which each has his own individuality, and it is not a herd of sheep.

But, perhaps to talk about freedom to Labor Action is like talking about colour to the blind. As a socialist and as a writer, I consider freedom the supreme good. The day on which I cannot freely write what I think, you can be sure that I will turn to writing illegally and, in the absence of newspapers, I will write on the walls.

Last updated on: 24 February 2015