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International Socialism, Summer 1994


David Beecham

Ignazio Silone and Fontamara


From International Socialism 2:63, Summer 1994. [1*]
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Of all the great political novels Fontamara is without doubt one of the most influential. When it was first published 60 years ago it was not the first book about fascism. But it was the first book which showed what fascism was really like, told in the language of the wretched of the earth, the cafoni of Italy. Within a year it had appeared in nine languages. By 1936 it was available in 20 countries and a stage version – ‘Bitter Stream’ – was showing in New York. [1] Fontamara became the very symbol of resistance. But it was not simply an anti-fascist book: it showed how people could change themselves in the process of changing the world.

Such powerful drama does not spring from the imagination. Fontamara is a book forged out of struggle; it is also the personal testament of a revolutionary in exile, prepared to sacrifice everything, believing himself near death.

Ignazio Silone was born on 1st May 1900 in Pescina, a small town in the mountainous region of the Abruzzi. His real name was not Ignazio Silone – he was born Secondino Tranquilli. Pescina was not Fontamara and Silone was not a poor peasant. His father owned a small amount of land; his mother was a weaver.

In 1915 an earthquake shattered central Italy. Around 50,000 people were killed, among them Silone’s mother. An orphan at the age of 15 he was forced to grow up extremely fast. In 1917, as political agitation against the government and the war grew rapidly, Silone became regional secretary for the rural workers of the Abruzzi. He was arrested on a demonstration against the war. Three articles he wrote for the Socialist Party paper Avanti! resulted in the editions being suppressed by the authorities: he had denounced the diversion of funds supposedly destined for earthquake relief. He was invited to Rome and appointed secretary of the Socialist Youth Federation, editing its weekly paper L’Avanguardia.

Over the next three years, as the revolutionary wave swept across Europe, Silone identified firmly with the militant left of the socialist movement, centred on the factory councils of Turin. It was this group, led by Antonio Gramsci, which split from the Socialist Party to form the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in January 1921. [2] At a stormy conference, the first delegate to declare his support for the Communists was Ignazio Silone, in the name of an organisation which now claimed some 50,000 supporters.

Silone immediately took on important roles in the new party. He was appointed editor of the paper for the city of Trieste and then, as the fascist threat grew and Mussolini came to power, went underground. Over the next three years he was sent as a Communist Party delegate to Germany, France, Spain and Russia. In 1925 he was brought into the publications department of the PCI to work with Gramsci and became responsible for party propaganda and agitation.

It was just at this point that fascist repression grew most savage. Using the pretext of a plot to assassinate Mussolini, all opposition parties and papers were banned. Gramsci was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The PCI was driven completely underground and into exile. The external leadership was assigned to Palmiro Togliatti. Silone became responsible for the internal Centre.

These were the circumstances in which Silone and Togliatti were summoned to Moscow for a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. It was to be a decisive experience in Silone’s life.

He had already been in Moscow on several occasions, becoming increasingly concerned about the ugly degeneration of the revolution. But on this occasion matters took a wholly new turn. Under Stalin’s control the Comintern was to be used as a means to begin the liquidation of internal opposition, specifically Trotsky and Zinoviev. The pretext was a document by Trotsky attacking the disastrous policies of the Comintern in China, where collaboration with the nationalists had led directly to the massacre of tens of thousands of workers in Shanghai and Wuhan.

The delegates were invited to condemn Trotsky’s document. It was difficult to do so, Silone apologised, since neither he nor Togliatti had read it. Neither have we, came the response. ‘The reply given to me was so incredible,’ Silone remembered, ‘that I rounded on the translator. “It’s impossible ... I must ask you to repeat his answer word for word”.’

Outrage followed, with the Stalinists insisting on unanimous condemnation and the Italians (and others) refusing to vote on a document they hadn’t seen. In an atmosphere of intimidation the policy discussions began. One incident summed up the situation: Zinoviev was prevented from entering the meeting by the Russian police guards. He had been excluded by a purely arbitrary decision. Silone recalled, ‘I kept asking Togliatti, “Do you suppose that’s the way they do things in the Sacred College of Cardinals? Or in the Fascist Grand Council?”’ [3]

‘The system’s failure was much greater than I had supposed,’ he wrote later. As he journeyed back to fascist Italy from Stalin’s Moscow he once again encountered comrades he could know and trust: ‘I found those traits of generosity, frankness, solidarity and lack of prejudice which were the genuine and traditional resource of Socialism in its struggle against bourgeois decadence and corruption’.

The memory of Moscow seemed ‘like an unreal nightmare’ and when he reported on events to a meeting in Milan, the first reaction was a ‘proposal to print posters reading “Long Live Trotsky” on the walls of Milanese factories.’ In reality there was little they could do, except – Silone believed – to defend the Italian Party from the Stalinist tyranny. But rapidly he realised this was a false hope.

It took less than three years for any hope of resistance within the PCI to the Stalin regime to wither. By that time Silone was in exile in Switzerland and suffering severely from what was thought to be TB. He had in effect taken the decision to withdraw from Party activity, but passivity was not enough for the leadership. To show his loyalty he would have to denounce his former comrades who had been expelled, notably Pietro Tresso, one of the best underground leaders, and those who had allied themselves with Trotsky. The denunciation was typed out and signed for him by Togliatti. Even that was not enough. Silone was expelled for not having broken fully with the ‘renegades’, with the suggestion that he was also mentally unbalanced. [4]

It was the summer of 1931, 12 months since he had completed the manuscript of Fontamara in the sanatorium at Davos. Years later, when he came to revise the book – Silone revised nearly everything he wrote – he described his state of mind:

‘Since in the doctors’ view I had only a short time to live, I wrote hurriedly, in an indescribable state of anxiety and stress, to construct to the best of my ability the village into which I put the quintessence of myself and the district in which I was born, so that at least I might die among my own people.’

But the anxiety and stress was not simply the result of illness and isolation. Fontamara was his first book and it was also a testament, dedicated to the two people who were closest to him.

One was Gabriella Seidenfeld (’Serena’) his comrade and lover since they had met in 1921 in Trieste. The ‘red Jewess’, as he called her, had been his constant companion, at his side in the clandestine work and on his trips abroad. Her loyalty to him was unswerving, but so was her loyalty to the Party. When he left, their relationship could not survive. [5]

The other was Romulo Tranquilli, his younger brother and the only surviving member of his family. Romulo had been in prison since 1928, accused of being a member of the PCI. He was so brutally beaten and tortured at the time of his arrest that he received permanent internal injuries, injuries which led to his death in prison in 1932. Romulo was not a militant; he was, in Silone’s words,

‘a vaguely anti-fascist young man whose education and feelings were Catholic ... Why did he confess he was a Communist? Why did he affirm his confession before the judge of a special tribunal which used his confession to condemn him to 12 years in prison? He wrote to me: “I have tried to act as I thought you would have in my place”.’

So it was that the self sacrifice of Berardo, the hero of Fontamara, was born. The manuscript of Fontamara circulated in the exile community in Switzerland without exciting much attention. The renowned Italian historian and critic, Gaetano Salvemini, described it as ‘untranslatable’. ‘The facts are so alien to someone who isn’t Italian – and even many Italians’, he wrote. ‘Who today, abroad, would have the money to risk on a book which would sell so few copies?’

Others were to echo that view. When the manuscript was offered to publishers in Britain it was rejected several times, by Gollancz among others. In the United States the book was rejected 12 times before it found a publisher. But Silone himself had no doubts. ‘There is something new in me’, he wrote in a letter to Gabriella. ‘I am not in the least worried about the judgement which will be made of Fontamara. I have never been so certain in myself ... [the peasants] are so alive that I speak with them. I think they are the first peasants of flesh and blood who will appear in Italian literature’.

But Fontamara was not to appear in Italian first. It was in the German speaking community that the book struck home. Thus it was that the ‘untranslatable’ appeared first in translation – a translation undertaken without payment by a woman who had never translated a book before. The costs were underwritten by 800 subscribers, and the book was serialised simultaneously in several German newspapers.

It took three years for Fontamara to appear in print: the years of the slump, the fatal division of the German workers’ movement, the triumph of the Nazis. When the book appeared it had an impact beyond Silone’s wildest dreams.

The shift from complete isolation to sudden fame could have ruined Silone. By 1935 he was living in luxury, enjoying the hospitality of a Swiss banker who had befriended him. But although he appreciated the comforts, he was indifferent to them. He remained a self effacing, rather taciturn figure. And despite his success with Fontamara, and his second novel, Bread and Wine, published in 1936, he was not popular with the authorities. He was refused residence in France, while the British government showed its customary generosity towards political refugees and refused him even the right to visit the country. He was offered the chance of exile in the United States on the personal initiative of Eleanor Roosevelt; he turned it down.

Thus it was that the outbreak of the Second World War found him still in Switzerland. He had rejected all party political activity since 1931, but under pressure from friends he agreed to take responsibility for the Foreign Centre of the Socialist Party. It was a thankless task and one for which he was not well suited. He again fell seriously ill; and the Swiss authorities, while refusing Mussolini’s demands for extradition, interned Silone for most of the war.

Despite the pressures and the hardships, Silone renewed his commitment to activity. He produced a socialist publication, L’Avvenire dei Lavoratori (The Future of the Workers), in which he outlined the need for what he called the ‘Third Front’ against fascism. The political platform he drafted in 1942 and published in 1944 shortly before his return from exile shows how his politics had shifted since his years in the Communist Party. The formulations he adopted could be interpreted in a variety of ways, and it was just this tendency to try and straddle quite different political positions which led to trouble after the war. But the platform also shows Silone’s continued commitment to some of the socialist principles of the 1920s. [6] How were these principles to be put into practice? Silone returned to an Italy where the Communist Party now had enormous prestige as the main organised force which had opposed fascism, not only politically but militarily. In the industrial north the rank and file of the PCI had organised the first mass strikes against fascism. The partisans had huge popular support. Compared to this the PSI had very little, and those forces it did have were in favour of collaboration – at least – with the Communists.

Yet Silone’s principal position as the new editor of Avanti! was to fight tooth and nail against a fusion with the Stalinists. In 1947 the PSI split between left and right: the left in favour of working with the PCI, the right already preparing for the Cold War. Silone attempted to assert an independent position between the two factions. His grouping had some apparent support: the new party he launched in 1949 (the PSU) in an attempt to regroup the non-Communist left had the backing of several thousand members, a newspaper and 15 parliamentary deputies. But in reality it was a mirage. Those who attempt to stand in the middle of a busy road usually get knocked down. The PSU collapsed almost as soon as it was born. Silone withdrew from organised politics for the second time in his life, this time for good.

Some have seen the remaining years of Silone’s life (he died in 1978) as one inexorable slide towards the right. He played the leading role in setting up the Italian branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organisation which (unknown to him) proved to be largely funded by the CIA. None of the books he wrote in the post-war period remotely approached the quality of Fontamara or Bread and Wine. The spiritual aspect of his personal faith grew stronger. Some of his articles degenerated into superficial moralising. He consistently opposed the idea of any role for the Communist Party in a governing alliance; although he did not intend it, by doing so he in effect aligned himself with the hard right, above all in the early 1970s.

In 1958 he published the ‘definitive’ version of Fontamara. [7] Most of the changes were slight – unlike Bread and Wine (retitled Wine and Bread) which was a substantially different book. As he said in a note to the revised version of Fontamara: ‘I retouched the picture here and there. Some characters have become more distinct and others have receded into the background. But they are the same characters and the same story’.

But there were important changes. The new edition was more polished, less hewn. One chapter, dealing with the Hero of Porta Pia, was cut out completely, making for a neater book but depriving the reader of a masterly explanation of how people are drawn into fascist movements. In the final chapter he gave a more central role to Maria Grazia, the victim of the gang rape by the fascists, by having her draft the text of the newspaper.

Finally there was his decision to delete all mention of the word unity. L’Unita was the name of the paper founded by Gramsci in 1924 and suppressed by Mussolini in 1926. When Fontamara was written, l’Unita was a word which symbolised resistance. After the war the PCI revived the paper and l’Unita became the most recognisable symbol of the party: from the 1950s every town and village with a significant PCI presence would have its own local Festa dell’Unita – a local fair with a political gloss. It is a sad irony that Silone seems to have felt unable to use the word because it had been appropriated by the Stalinist enemy.

Yet for all this Silone did not surrender his principles. Many of the disillusioned intellectuals of the 1950s with whom he mixed became simple apologists for capitalism and the ‘American Way of Life’. Their detestation of Stalinism led them to embrace another false idol. Silone was different. For one thing he was expelled from the Communist Party just at the time when many others were joining it. And Silone’s entire experience of the movement was as a militant and a fighter.

This experience marked him out for the rest of his life. In the 1950s he denounced the McCarthy witch hunts. In the 1960s he opposed the American war in Vietnam. When the Hungarian Uprising was drowned in blood by Russian troops in 1956, Silone stood out against those who looked to the USA or the UN for hope. The lesson of Budapest, he wrote, was that the Stalinist system could not survive. The most important fact was that Russian soldiers had deserted and crossed over to the side of the rebellious workers. ‘I must confess’, he wrote, ‘that I attribute to episodes of this sort a far greater importance than I do to the General Assembly of the United Nations’. And, he went on, change always comes from below not from above. ‘Let us not forget that the new era in Russian life did not begin with the Twentieth Party Congress, but with the great strikes of slave labourers in the Vorkuta concentration camps’. [8]

Towards the end of his life, when many of his generation feathered their nests by denouncing student revolt and the new militancy, Silone remained his own man. He saw the rebellion against the system and the birth of a new left as hopeful signs: he feared that it might reproduce the fanaticism and sectarianism of the past. Unfortunately, so far as Italy at least was concerned, some of his fears proved well founded.

Silone’s life was moulded by the two great forces of the 20th century. First he was inspired and steeled by the hopes of a new world which followed the Great War and the Russian Revolution. Then he experienced the disillusion of the 1930s as fascism and Stalinism reigned triumphant. But he never despaired. He saw clearly, and much earlier than most, the consequences of the degeneration of the revolution. And he depicted what fascism really meant in a way the whole world could understand. The 1990s are not the 1930s. Fascism has not triumphed. But once again the words of the peasants of Fontamara ring out:

What are we to do?
Che fare?
What is to be done?

Editorial Note by ETOL

1. Since this article was written evidence has emerged that Ignazio Silone worked as an informer for the Italian secret police between 1919 and 1930 under the cover name “Silvestri”. The evidence is summarised in John Foot, The Secret Life of Ignazio Silone, New Left Review (2nd series), No. 3, May–June 2000. A response to these accusations called Silone Reinvented by Maria Moscardelli, May 2005, can be found on the Website.


My thanks are due to Eileen Millar, Eric Mosbacher and Gwenda David for the advice in preparing this article, and to Aldo Arrigucci for his help and inspiration.

1. Fontamara remains probably the most widely translated Italian novel. It did not appear in Italian until 1948, apart from a limited edition published by exiles in Paris in 1934, and a British government edition (with numerous errors) issued to Italian prisoners of war in 1944. Fontamara’s worldwide success obviously owed a lot to the presence of Italian communities in different countries. Surprisingly, in view of Silone’s sharp break with Stalinism, the book was also published in a Russian edition in 1935.

2. It was originally the PCd’I (Communist Party of Italy) to emphasise its internationalism. It became the PCI (Italian Communist party) in 1943, when Stalin dissolved the Communist International.

3. Silone had previously been entirely neutral in the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky, regarding it a purely Russian affair. In an essay written in 1949, published in English in 1965 under the title ‘Emergency Exit’, he described how his attitude changed:

‘Trotsky was no longer what he had appeared the first time I saw him in 1921 – the popular head of the Red Army, who had just saved Petrograd – but an old lion trapped in a ditch and on the point of being captured and killed. In the eyes of those who watched him without let-up, his every gesture and word took on disproportionate importance.

‘I remember that during one of the regular sessions I gave Trotsky some copies of a little underground paper from Turin, and he seemed quite touched. He told me of a similar paper, against Tsarism, which he had edited at Nikolaev when he was still a student. He did not know Italy very well, since he had only passed through, but he remembered it with pleasure, he told me, having enjoyed there a bella amicizia. His few words of Italian, in fact, were graceful and had evidently been learned from a woman. Our friendly conversation went on in the pauses in the political debate and during the translations of the speeches. As I have said, it did not go unnoticed by the suspicious members of the apparatus. But my complicity with Trotsky, as well as that of Togliatti, became still more evident when in closing a long and vehement speech in response to some insolence directed at him by the Hungarian Béla Kun, he apologised for concluding with, as he said, some “words in the language of Dante and Togliatti.” These words were: “Béla’s manners are not very bella.” Although this joke in Italian was invented by Trotsky (his vocabulary was at least that adequate) and was heard by us with no less surprise than by the others present, it was attributed to us, without anyone bothering to seek confirmation, and added to our other serious political demerits.’

4. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the Left Opposition and Trotsky personally to win Silone, he did not respond. ‘After leaving the party,’ he wrote later, ‘I carefully avoided landing in one of the numerous groups of ex-Communists, and that I do not regret. I know the fatalism that dominates them and makes them into little sects with all the defects of official Communism – fanaticism, centralism and abstraction – without the characteristics and advantages which Communism derives from the presence of large numbers of workers.’ Anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with orthodox Trotskyism will recognise the picture – but Silone’s isolation cost him dear. The Left Opposition also acted clumsily towards him (to say the least) by publishing an edited version of private letters to Tresso which played up Silone’s support for the Opposition and omitted his critical remarks.

5. Silone’s emotional attachment to Gabriella remained to the end of his life, however. She was the first person mentioned in his will.

6. The war was ‘an imperialist and capitalist war for raw materials and markets, like that of 1914–18’. Socialists should maintain complete independence from the democratic governments being ‘inspired solely by the interests and ideals of the working class in Italy and internationally’. A united Europe on the existing capitalist basis ‘would result in the dictatorship of finance and heavy capital across the whole continent. Political freedom and self-determination ... can only be guaranteed by the socialisation of the main economic forces ...’ ‘Socialist Italy is especially committed to the liberation of the peoples of North Africa ... Those who may have need for assistance from more developed peoples will receive no help from the military or the bankers, but from the associations of workers, technicians and intellectuals of free Europe.’

7. This revised edition was published in an English translation in 1985 by Dent. The new Redwords edition reproduces the original version, first published in 1934.

8. The Lesson of Budapest (December 1956), published in Emergency Exit (1965).

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