Brian Pearce

Palmiro Togliatti

(January 1960)

From The Newsletter, 2 January 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

It was Polonius who agreed with Prince Hamlet when he said a certain cloud in the sky was shaped like a camel; agreed with him again when he changed his mind and said it resembled a weasel; and agreed yet again when Hamlet compared it to a whale.

The Stalinized international Communist movement has known and still knows a lot of officials of that type, people with no ideas of their own who merely wait for ‘the line’ to be thrown to them. Perhaps the classic case was Professor Varga, Moscow’s economist-in-ordinary, who is said to have telegraphed back on one occasion

when he was instructed to prepare a report on world economy for a Comintern gathering: ‘What must facts show? Impending slump or continued stabilization?’

Palmiro Togliatti, whose important article in Rinascita for July–August, summarized in World Marxist Review for November, was discussed, by Gerry Healy in the last issue of The Newsletter, is no Polonius. His record shows him to be a man of outstanding ability, capable of original and independent thought. Unfortunately, it also shows him as being ready as any Polonius to subordinate his thinking to the current requirements of the Kremlin just as soon as the whip is cracked.

During the discussion which broke out in the world Communist movement following the publication of Khrushchev’s ‘secret’ speech at the 20th Congress, Togliatti wrote a most penetrating and suggestive commentary on that speech. Published in Unità of June 17, 1956, it was issued – through clenched teeth – in an English version in the form, of a special supplement to World News, the British Communist Party’s weekly. (Some ill-conditioned intellectuals who read Italian had seen the article and bombarded party headquarters with demands for its publication.)

In this article Togliatti looked below the surface of the ‘cult of the individual’, referred to various aspects of bureaucratic degeneration in Soviet society, and pointed to the need for ‘a careful investigation into the way in which such a state of affairs came about’. It was probably this article and the worldwide interest it aroused that more than any other single factor led to the notorious’ June 30 resolution of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, officially ‘closing the discussion’. And Togliatti, who had shown that he knew and understood a great deal about the origins and nature of Stalinism, obediently closed his mouth on the subject from that moment onward.

A remarkable speech

In his 1956 article Togliatti alluded briefly to the infection of the international Communist movement with Stalinism, and remarked:

‘If you can, have a look at the speech I made, for example, at the 6th Congress of the Comintern in 1928, and you will find criticism of some of these things.’

Yes, indeed, that was a remarkable speech. A brief report of it will be found in the English edition of International Press Correspondence, issue of August 23, 1928. Togliatti drew attention to the essential feature of Fascism, that it abolishes completely all independent workers’ organizations, and to the political consequence of this, that it rejects all compromise with Social-Democracy.

Now this was quite a bold thing to say at that time. Stalin had promulgated in 1924, during an earlier ultra-left phase of Comintern policy, that ‘Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism ... These organizations do not negate but supplement each other. They are not antipodes, they are twins’. (Works, English edition, vol. 6, p. 294) True, not much notice had been taken of this doctrine during the 1925–27 opportunist phase of Comintern policy, but it had never been repudiated, and when Togliatti spoke a new ultra-left phase was opening in which Stalin’s bright idea was to be crystallized in the concept of ‘social-fascism’ and used to bring disaster to the working-class movement, especially in Germany.

However, once it was made perfectly clear to Togliatti that ‘social-fascism’ was compulsory doctrine till further notice, he adapted himself accordingly. In February 1930 he was writing:

‘Italian Social-Democracy is fascising itself with great facility.’

On which Trotsky commented:

‘Alas, the functionaries of official communism are turning themselves into lackeys with even greater facility.’

Togliatti and Trotsky

In the years 1928–34, to express the criticism of the ‘social-fascism’ doctrine and its practical consequences which Togliatti now puts before the world’s Communists was one of the marks of the ‘Trotskyist beast’. In Britain as in other countries, men were expelled from the Communist Party in 1932 for circulating and discussing Trotsky’s writings on the German situation in which he denounced the official policy and called for an orientation towards a united front of the workers’ parties against Fascism. (It is worth recalling that Trotsky had shown up the fallacy of Stalin’s formulation so far back as 1928, when he wrote in his Criticism of the Draft Programme of the Comintern:

‘One might say that Social-Democracy is the left wing of the bourgeois society and this definition would be quite correct if one does not construe it so as to oversimplify it and thereby forget that Social-Democracy still leads millions of workers behind it and within certain limits is constrained to reckon not only with the will of its bourgeois master but also with the interests of its deluded proletarian constituency. But it is absolutely senseless to characterize Social-Democracy as the “moderate wing of fascism.”’

Somehow Togliatti does not find it appropriate to pay tribute to those who were right at the time about ‘social-fascism’ and who were punished by him and his like for trying to correct this error when it was alive and kicking.

Why this particular angle?

And why, indeed, does Togliatti dwell now upon this error and this alone in the record of the Stalinist movement? After all, current Communist policy is not of an ultra-left character, nor are there any signs of its moving in that direction – quite the contrary. It is strange that he has nothing to say about the opportunist errors of 1925–27, which preceded and prepared the way for the ultra-left convulsion of 1928–34 – for this was in the main a reaction to the disasters brought about by these opportunist errors, and the so-called ‘third period’ can only be understood if one knows what went before.

That is to say, it would be strange if one did not know that Togliatti is writing as a politician, and a crooked one at that, not as an historian; and that just because Stalinist policy is now repeating in some respects the 1925–27 phase it is vital for him and his colleagues that the comrades’ attention should not be directed to that part of their history!

When, in Britain, for example, the Communist Party is seeking an accommodation with part of the trade union bureaucracy as in the days of the Anglo-Russian Committee, and building up Cousins as it once built up Purcell, the less said about that period the better, from the point of view of Togliatti, Gollan and Co. Far better to wax retrospectively virtuous about the errors of the ‘third period’, which have far less topical a bearing.

A question is begged

Had Togliatti written from a ‘purely’ historical angle, and chosen for reasons quite unconnected with current political preoccupations to write about, the ‘third period’, one might still have expected some explanation of why he appears so confident that errors of the Leftist type are now definitely and finally out so far as the leadership of world Stalinism is concerned. That explanation could have included a discussion of what happened to the left turn which his movement seemed to begin to make at the end of 1947 and in the immediately following period, after American and British imperialism had ended ‘Big Three Unity’ and launched the cold war. Why, this time, unlike what had happened twenty years before, did the Soviet bureaucracy shy away so quickly from even formal ‘revolutionism’ and move towards complete scrapping, in words as well as deeds, of the Leninist heritage? After all, there have been no such pretexts for a Rightward drift as existed in the 1930s – the triumph of Fascism in Germany and the subsequent readiness of France and Britain to flirt with Russia.

But to go into that would involve taking up the question of the bureaucratic degeneration of Soviet society and studying it as a process, with definite stages and an unfolding series of inevitable implications for the world Stalinist movement – the question which Togliatti dutifully laid down at the close of the ‘false dawn’ of 1956.


In 1957 and 1958, the Communist Parties of the world, following Khrushchev’s lead, welcomed the Union of Syria and Egypt as a great progressive step forward for the Arab people. At the same time they ignored the lack of any freedom for workers’ parties in Egypt, and the fact that this would henceforth apply also to Syria. When Marxists raised this question, and exposed the nonsense of Communists calling Nasser a ‘national hero,’ they were called ‘sectarians,’ unable to recognize that Nasser was an ally against the ‘main enemy.’ The reason for all this, of course, was that Nasser was on good terms with the rulers of the USSR. It is now very interesting to read the comments of the exiled Syrian Communist leader, Khaled Baghdasb, in a Prague journal:

‘Thousands of the best sons of the Arab nation – workers, farmers, officers and intellectuals – are rotting in the prisons without trial. What Nasser calls “the road to Socialism’ is a mockery, since it has brought upon the workers only inflation, unemployment and tyranny.’

Last updated on 17.10.2011