Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4

Paolo Casciola

Alfonso Leonetti: A Turncoat Trotskyist

A preliminary account of Leonetti’s career can be consulted in Dario Renzi’s Ricordando Alfonso Leonetti (1895–1984), Prospettiva Socialista, second year, no. 1, January 1985, pp. 21–2, and his activity in the leadership of the Trotskyist movement is described by Giancarlo Telloli, Alfonso Leonetti dans le SI de l’Opposition de gauche et de la LCI, Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no. 29, March 1987, pp. 18–42.

Trotsky’s letters to him at this time include To Alfonso Leonetti on the French Section, 5 February 1931, and You Should Help the New Leadership, 11 February 1931 (Writings of Leon Trotsky: Supplement 1929–33, New York, 1979, pp. 60–4). The recipient of the letter entitled To Preserve Our Politics from Degeneration, 13 March 1931, can no longer be identified (Writings of Leon Trotsky: Supplement 1929–33, pp. 75–6), but it may have been Mario Bavassano. A further letter addressed to Leonetti, Feroci, Souzo, Saraceno and Akros, Les Difficultés dans l’Organisation, 15 June 1934 (Oeuvres, Volume 4, Paris, 1979, pp. 97–100) has not yet been translated into English. Five hitherto unpublished letters to the Italian opposition from Trotsky, dated 12 June 1930, 15 December 1930, 17 September 1933, 1 June 1936 and 22 June 1936 are introduced by Juan Perez in The Birth of the Italian Left Opposition, Militant International Review, Winter 1985, pp. 23–27.

Antonio Moscato’s Correspondance Trotsky-Leonetti sur la guerre d’Ethiopie, Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no. 29, March 1987, pp. 43–56, discusses the position to be taken up by the movement towards the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and a French edition of Leonetti’s report to Trotsky on the Italian Fascist regime appeared in the same journal (no. 36, December 1988, pp. 113–8). When Leonetti’s own Notes sur Gramsci (which were written after he had rejoined the Communist Party) were reviewed in Informations ouvrières (no. 670, 11 September 1974), a lively correspondence ensued between Jean Risacher, Robert Clément and Pierre Broué about Leonetti’s own part in Tresso’s death (À propos du livre de A. Leonetti Notes sur Gramsci, La Vérité, no. 565, January 1975, pp. 113–20).

This is a revised version of the article which was originally published under the title Alfonso Leonetti è scomparso: la morte di un trotskysta pententi, Il Communista, Volume 6, nos. 16–17 (new series), January–April 1985.

‘I shall tell a truth about you, worse than any lie.’ (A.S. Griboyedov)

ALFONSO LEONETTI died in Rome on 26 December 1984 at the age of 89. As could have been foreseen, all the mass media gave this great prominence. Needless to say, Italian Stalinists and centrists particularly distinguished themselves in this chorus of praise with their solemn and dull obituaries. It was an utterly worthless flood of words. On the other hand it was quite understandable that Alessandro Natta (the then National Secretary of the Italian Communist Party) and his fellows would pay great honour to the old ‘comrade of Gramsci’, not least because Leonetti spent the last 40 years of his life acting as the critical conscience of Italian Stalinism (above all in its Eurocommunist guise), and so, in his own way, supporting the idea that there was an ostensible continuity between Lenin’s Bolshevism, Gramsci’s bureaucratic centrism, and Togliatti’s Stalinism.

What was not equally understandable, however, was the assessment of Leonetti put forward by the fake Trotskyists of the Lega Comunista Rivoluzionaria (LCR), the Italian section of the self-proclaimed United Secretariat of the Fourth International, which entrusted the unpleasant rôle of cheerleader to Professor Antonio Moscato.

Pabloites at Work

Despite his undoubted merit as an historian, this time even Moscato fell headlong into the sticky cobweb of an ad hoc obituary. Thus, according to him, Leonetti was suddenly turned into ‘a Communist and an internationalist who never turned his coat’. That was the title Professor Moscato gave to his lengthy apology for Leonetti, published in Bandiera Rossa (20 January 1985). But reality is not as he would have us believe. As a matter of fact, at a certain point of his life Leonetti consciously chose to betray the revolutionary cause to which he had adhered for some years. This historical truth cannot be deleted or distorted by long harangues of often senseless chattering.

Moscato’s article is revealing of the dilettantism and superficiality with which Pabloites deal with the history of Italian and international Trotskyism, of which Leonetti was a member during most of the 1930s. And it is certainly scandalous to find that in Italy a comprehensive history of that movement still does not exist. But this is no accident. Behind the attempt to obliterate such an important part of the political and programmatic heritage of the Italian working class movement, there lies not only Stalinism, under a Togliattist or a Eurocommunist guise, but also the conscious will of those ‘Trotskyists’ who tried and still try to hide from history their crucial mistakes and opportunist crimes. And, unfortunately, it has to be admitted that these gentlemen did their job pretty well, thereby giving unexpected but welcome help to the campaign of falsification and slander which has been carried on for many decades by Italian Stalinists against ‘far left’ groupings.

With Gramsci and ... Stalin

Leonetti was born in Andria (Bari province) on 13 September 1895 into a very poor and numerous family. At the age of 18 he joined the Fascio Giovanile Socialista (Socialist Youth) in his native town, and started his career as a journalist by contributing to several Socialist newspapers in Southern Italy, which was to make him famous. In 1916, having been exempted from military service, Leonetti moved to Milan, and in 1918 to Turin, where he met Antonio Gramsci and started contributing to Il Grido del Popolo and to the Turin edition of Avanti!. As one who took part in the Gramscite experience of L’Ordine Nuovo, he participated in the battles of the ‘biennio rosso’ (1919–20), which culminated in a wave of factory occupations in Turin in September 1920.

At the time of the Leghorn split of the Socialist Party (January 1921), he was amongst the founding members of the Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I). After Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome’, he was sent to Trieste by the party, to become the editor of Il Lavoratore, the only Communist paper which was still legal. Arrested by the Fascist police because of his alleged participation in an ‘armed (Communist) gang’, and acquitted in 1923, he worked in the clandestine PCd’I ‘Centre’ until he was arrested again in the October of that year. From then on Leonetti was one of Gramsci’s allies in the struggle that the Gramscist centrist faction, in league with the right wing section of the party, waged against the left wing led by the PCd’I’s first National Secretary, Amadeo Bordiga.

Professor Moscato did not linger on this episode. But it should be remembered that it was precisely under the guidance of Gramsci, helped by the various Leonetti types, that the PCd’I undertook its own ‘Bolshevisation’, that is to say, its alignment with Stalinism. It was Gramsci who imposed upon the young Italian party a passive acceptance of orders from Moscow and the employment of the same bureaucratic methods which, by that time, were becoming more and more widespread in the Russian party and in a Comintern that was on its way to complete Stalinisation. And furthermore, it was under Gramsci’s lead that the PCd’I ushered in the fatal policy of Popular Fronts, thus anticipating in more than one sense the turn of the Seventh Congress of the Communist International. It was in fact within a Popular Front framework that we can place both the ‘Aventine’ policy adopted by the PCd’I in 1924 and Gramsci’s theories in the 1930s about the transitional period from Fascism to Communism, which will be dealt with below.

The Third National Congress of the PCd’I, which was held in January 1926 in Lyons, sanctioned the final victory of Gramsci’s faction. This victory expressed itself, among other things, in the composition of the new party leadership, within which were to be found nearly all the future leaders of the Italian Trotskyist organisation, who at that time sided with Gramsci, that is, Pietro Tresso (Blasco), Paolo Ravazzoli (Santini), Gaetana Teresa Recchia and Leonetti himself. From 1924 onwards Leonetti was the editor of the underground PCd’I paper, l’Unità ; he was persecuted and physically attacked by the Fascists, especially after the adoption of the ‘extraordinary legislation’ in November 1926; so, in the end, he was forced to go underground and emigrate to Switzerland and later to France in 1928.

The Left Opposition

The years 1928–29 were those in which the Stalinised Comintern adopted the adventurist ‘Third Period’ line. In fact, starting from the Ninth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (February 1928), the Comintern started to claim that Europe was entering a ‘new phase of revolutionary upsurge’ which followed the ‘relative stabilisation of the capitalist system’. The Sixth World Congress (July–September 1928) made the new perspective clearer for the stage that was just beginning: the end of capitalist stabilisation would bring social upheavals on a world scale, and would put proletarian revolution on the agenda. Basing itself on that analysis, the Tenth Plenum of the ECCI (July 1929) both canonised the ultra-left doctrine of ‘Social Fascism’, and de facto rejected the Leninist tactic of the united front – something which had the most tragic consequences some years later in Germany and greatly eased Hitler’s coming to power in 1931–33.

Until 1929 the PCd’I had put forward a timid right wing criticism of the Comintern’s new line. But the Tenth Plenum marked the complete and final capitulation of Togliatti, as a turncoat Bukharinite, to Stalin. It was in the wake of that capitulation that a left opposition began to take shape within the Italian party. Leonetti was one of the leaders of that opposition which formed spontaneously in September 1929 on the basis of an overall critique of the policy followed by the Italian Communist Party under Togliatti’s leadership, and against the latter’s about-turn in the face of Stalin’s diktat. But the Italian opposition never functioned as a proper faction. The basic weakness of the oppositionists – a weakness which was later to be diminished by their links with the international Trotskyist movement – was lodged in their lack of the political homogeneity and programmatic cohesion which were needed to wage a successful battle within the Italian party. Thus, until the meeting of the PCd’I Central Committee in March 1930, Leonetti and his comrades basically accepted the ‘Third Period turn’, and therefore capitulated to the party majority.

Politically defeated and hit by severe disciplinary measures, the Italian oppositionists made contact with the Trotsky-led International Left Opposition (ILO), and by May 1930 they had set themselves up as the Nuova Opposizione Italiana (NOI, Italian New Opposition). On 9 June 1930 Tresso, Leonetti and Ravazzoli were bureaucratically expelled from the PCd’I, and their expulsion was followed a little while later by that of Recchia and her companion Mario Bavassano. That was the so-called ‘turn of 1930’, which was the crowning moment in the process of the Stalinisation of the Italian party.

A Centrist Leader of the NOI

Despite his remarkable performance as a journalist and as a historian, Leonetti always refrained from dealing with the burning question of the rôle he played within the Italian and the international Trotskyist organisation (he was a member of the latter’s International Secretariat from 1930). Nor did he shed any light on the period that followed his break with Trotskyism. He confined himself to giving to some ‘well-disposed’ historians some fragmentary (and frequently incorrect) information about his experience in the Fourth Internationalist movement. But there is no reason to be too astonished by that. In fact, during his short stay in the Trotskyist movement, Leonetti was the man responsible for the break-up of the NOI. And this does not bring him any honour. Despite that truth, however, Leonetti did enjoy – and post-mortem he still enjoys – a high prestige in pseudo-Trotskyist circles both in Italy and on the other side of the Alps, as well as in some academic milieux.

It was above all owing to such petty ‘Trotskyist’ intellectuals as Roberto Massari, or to ones of heavier metal, that Leonetti succeeded in being entitled an ‘oppositionist along with Gramsci and Trotsky’ (sic!) and a ‘consistent and incorruptible anti-Stalinist’. No doubt he was well aware that even with false number plates – and having the right friends in the right places – you can go a long way. And certainly his acquaintances were important.

But let us go back to the experience of the NOI. When the NOI became the Italian section of the ILO, all of its members were living in France as political emigrés. Thus the process of building the NOI went along with the formation of the ILO’s French section, the Ligue Communiste, within which a sharp factional struggle was going on between the right wing, which had a majority until January 1931 (headed by Pierre Naville), and the ‘Marxist wing’ (which was supported by Trotsky and led by Raymond Molinier). Of the NOI’s leaders, all of whom had also joined the Ligue, Leonetti and Bavassano sided immediately with the right wing faction, which endorsed a ‘right Syndicalist’ policy, and championed a complete tailing of the Opposition Unitaire, a vague and heterogeneous regroupment within the French Stalinist union.

During that same period, Tresso, who supported the Ligue’s ‘Marxist wing’ and was isolated within the NOI, moved away from the NOI itself, and, whilst formally continuing to be a member of it, decided to become an active member of the French group. Among the reasons which caused him to do so there was undoubtedly the problem of the organisational connection of the NOI with relation to the Ligue, and, above all, the relevant political differences that separated him from the centrist majority of the NOI, – that is Leonetti, Ravazzoli and Bavassano – which will be taken up again later.

When the ‘Marxist wing’ won a majority in the Ligue, the NOI began to demand complete autonomy as a national section of the ILO. The centrist leaders of the NOI reasoned that as long as it was a question of supporting the right wing faction of the Ligue they could very well remain in the ranks of the French organisation, but that it would now be self-defeating to be subject to its control and discipline, all the more so because Tresso was one of the Ligue’s leaders. Political discussions and clashes over that question continued for years, until the NOI was de facto dissolved.

To the ‘autonomist’ position of Leonetti, Ravazzoli and Bavassano, the new majority of the French Ligue (including Tresso, who was to be a member of the French Trotskyist organisation almost uninterruptedly until his assassination by Stalinist killers) counterposed a position according to which only those comrades assigned to carry on the ‘Italian work’ of the NOI should enjoy an ‘autonomous’ status. All the others should enter the Ligue to contribute loyally and actively to the building of the revolutionary party in France without isolating themselves within the tiny confines of a small emigré grouplet contemplating its own navel.

But the NOI’s leadership thought the opposite. Because they feared that the interference of the French in ‘Italian affairs’ would expose their own centrist positions and bureaucratic organisational methods, Leonetti, Ravazzoli and Bavassano started a disruptive campaign within the Ligue. From the documents of the period of 1931–32, it appears that the NOI tried to weaken and overthrow the leadership of the French group by every means, both lawful and illicit, ‘preferably using innuendoes and the meanest, filthiest slanders’ in order to hide better their ‘erroneous and even clearly centrist’ political positions (Rapports entre la ligue et la Nouvelle Opposition Italienne, Bulletin Intérieur de la LCI, no. 3, 1931). The leadership of the Ligue emphasised that the differences existing within the centrist leading staff of the NOI – which had emerged in a crystal-clear way during a meeting convened by the ILO’s International Secretariat when Bavassano, tired and discouraged by the bureaucratic centrist intrigues carried on by Leonetti, Ravazzoli and himself, had handed in his own resignation both from the NOI and from the ILO – were subsequently put aside in order the better to fight against the Ligue and the so-called ‘Molinier-Blasco bloc’.

Trotsky acted at the Copenhagen meetings in November 1932 as a go-between in respect of the autonomy of the NOI, but his mediation was unsuccessful. On the other hand, as stated above, what was involved were not only organisational questions, but also important political differences. (These differences are dealt with in the piece in this issue on Tresso.) We are in possession of a letter sent by Nicola Di Bartolomeo (Fosco) to Trotsky early in 1933. That letter gives us some relevant information about the controversial questions within the NOI, which the writer simply lists without further details. These were in respect of the united front and the democratic questions, Italian perspectives and the attitude to be taken to the Concentrazione Antifascista – a Popular Front bloc of leftist, radical petit-bourgeois and bourgeois Italian anti-Fascist parties abroad.

This letter is also important insofar as ‘Fosco’ draws up his own balance sheet of the NOI experience. In his opinion, the balance sheet shows bankruptcy. The reasons for this are to be found not only in the centrist opportunist deviations of Leonetti, Ravazzoli and Bavassano, but also in the very origins of the Italian organisation:

‘... the NOI even found a philosophical-theoretical-political “basis” for itself in the group around L’Ordine Nuovo, that is, the Italian centrist current which more or less served the Stalinist-centrist revisionism which had come out of the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, etc, which the Italian CP enthusiastically accepted against Bordigism, that is, against “Trotskyism” ... All the rest is nothing but an unprincipled zigzagging with no conviction on the part of the NOI ... To hope that the NOI, which is a clique separated from the working class, can have the strength and the ability to remedy its origins, its positions, and its wrong orientation as a whole ... amounts to pretending that centrism and the Prometeoists [that is, the Bordigists] recognise their own “mistakes”.’

The End of the NOI

The death agony of the NOI began a few months after this letter was written, for at a meeting held on 9 April 1933, the Italian section of the ILO suddenly decided to expel both ‘Fosco’ and ‘Blasco’ from its ranks. Here is what Professor Moscato has to say on this episode: ‘Leonetti never remembered that period, going so far as to deny doggedly that certain things had actually occurred (such as, for example, the mutual expulsion of himself and Tresso).’

Apart from the fact that such a ‘mutual expulsion’ never happened, as it was Leonetti who expelled Tresso, and not the other way round, this was by no means the only thing ‘forgotten’ by Leonetti. Nor have his friends, including Moscato, made any great effort to fill the gaps and to reconstruct the events which Leonetti apparently ‘removed’ from his memory. But this little ‘oversight’ is particularly surprising, insofar as the expulsions of April 1933 caused an impassioned debate within the international Trotskyist movement. Trotsky himself intervened in it with a letter to Jan Frankel dated 29 April. The Old Man showed his incredulous astonishment at the absurdity of this disciplinary measure, and again advised making concessions to the NOI.

The manoeuvre carried out by Leonetti and the other leading members of the Italian Trotskyist group seemed to repeat the one which had been orchestrated by Gramsci against the Bordigist Left of the PCd’I some years before. In fact, this was another case in which the centrists allied with the right wing (that is, with Ravazzoli, who was shortly to flirt with the ‘Giustizia e Libertà ’ movement [1] and later to end his political career in the ranks of the Italian Social Democracy) in order to liquidate by organisational means their detested left oppositionists, and so, in an ultimatist-bureaucratic way, to prevent any discussion of controversial political questions.

But the international leadership of the ILO had a different opinion. Urged by the Executive Commission of the French Ligue, the ILO Plenum held at the end of May 1933 openly disavowed Leonetti’s actions, annulled the expulsions, and emphasised the need to start an honest, deep-going discussion on the existing differences. Furthermore, the Plenum quite correctly remarked that it was precisely the NOI’s lack of contacts with the Ligue and the hostile attitude of Leonetti and his friends to the Ligue which had made the NOI’s crisis worse, and caused its stagnation.

Apart from these expulsions, 1933 was a crucial year for the Trotskyist movement. Hitler’s victory in Germany in January-February exposed the failure of the ultra-left policy that had been followed by the Comintern and its German section. On 12 March Trotsky proposed to abandon the call to reform the German Communist Party (KPD), a policy which the ILO had applied until then to the Stalinist organisations, both nationally and internationally. Later on, faced with the absence of any self-criticism by the KPD about the ‘German catastrophe’, Trotsky suggested (from mid-June on) the extension of this ‘turn for a new party in Germany’ to all the Stalinist parties and the Comintern as a whole. Finally, on 15 July 1933 Trotsky proclaimed the need for a radical turn in the activity of the ILO, and called for the building of new revolutionary parties and a new International – the Fourth.

The turn to the Fourth International met with some resistance in the Trotskyist movement. Within the NOI, Ravazzoli, Bavassano and Recchia strongly opposed it, and perhaps it is not too hazardous to believe that even Leonetti had some doubts about it. In the meantime, after the April ‘mis-expulsions’, the crisis of the Italian group had become sharper. On 15 June the NOI organ, the Bollettino dell’Opposizione Comunista Italiana (PCI), ceased publication. Bavassano and Recchia linked themselves to the Yiddish-language group of the Ligue, the ‘Groupe Juife’, which opposed the idea of a Fourth International. In October they broke with the NOI to take part in the formation of the Union Communiste, an organisation created by the members of the ‘Groupe Juife’ who had been expelled from the Ligue. Ravazzoli was about to break with Trotskyism. In reality the NOI was now dissolved.

A Strange Episode

On 25 November 1933 the ‘Leonetti case’ burst into the open. La Nostra Bandiera, a journal of the Italian Stalinist émigrés in France, published an article bearing the title The Rout of Counter-Revolutionary Trotskyism, in which could be read the following lines: ‘The Trotskyist Feroci [Leonetti] has let the PCd’I know that he is tired, embittered and distressed to be outside the party. He would admit that, outside the party, nothing can be done but hinder revolutionary work and the proletarian movement.’

Later in the evening of that day, three members of the Trotskyist International Secretariat went to Leonetti’s home to ask for an explanation. Leonetti became indignant because of the lack of confidence shown by his night-time visitors, and he resolutely disavowed the content of the article. The following day he wrote a public disavowal, and sent it to Trotsky with an accompanying letter. In that letter he said he was ready to resign from any post of responsibility. In replying, Trotsky solidarised with him and rejected his resignation.

It is, however, odd that the statement ascribed to Leonetti by La Nostra Bandiera is almost identical with the following statement which Leonetti himself gave to the paper of the PCI [2], l’Unità , in February 1962, that is, just after his readmission into Togliatti’s party: ‘It was, I repeat, a mistake to break with the party, because facts have always shown that a Communist is right only in the party and with the party, which expresses the class interests of the proletariat.’

Against Entrism

During the first months of 1934 Tresso and Leonetti were reconciled, probably because of their joint struggle against Ravazzoli. As well as opposing the turn to the Fourth International, Ravazzoli was in favour of the organic unity of all the forces which made a reference to the working class, was opposed to the dictatorship of the proletariat, denied that the Soviet Union was a (degenerated) workers’ state and, as far as Italy was concerned, championed the necessity of building ‘a sort of Italian Kuomintang which should range from the Communists [that is, the Stalinists] to Giustizia and Libertà ’ (La Verità , no. 2, April 1934).

The reorganisation of the Italian Trotskyist ranks was greatly speeded up by the influx of new forces: a group of oppositionists from the PCd’I, led by the Tuscan Angiolino Luchi (Metallo), and another member of the PCd’I, Veniero Spinelli (Spartaco Travagli). In February 1934 they had been thrown out in the wave of expulsions by which the PCd’I disposed of those oppositionists who had fought against the Stalinist Comintern policy for Germany in the previous years. Because of these accessions, Italian Bolshevik-Leninists began to emerge from the crisis into which they had been plunged. Thus, in March 1934 a new paper was published by the Sezione Italiana della Lega Comunista-Internazionalista (Bolscevichi-Leninisti)La Verità . But that experience was also to be short-lived.

In February 1934 Trotsky considered that the period during which the International Communist League [3] had oriented itself to left centrist groupings which emerged from splits in the Second International was definitely over, and he started to sketch out the entrist tactic. Such a tactic, historically known as the ‘French turn’ because it was first carried out in France, flowed first of all from the fact that the crisis of the French Socialist Party, the SFIO, had caused an important left wing tendency to develop within its ranks. This was to be a major arena for Trotskyist work, even if only a potential one.

Furthermore, the reactionary demonstrations which occurred in France in January-February 1934 spurred on a massive mobilisation of the workers, who understood the lessons of the German catastrophe of the previous year far better than their leaders. The drive toward unity of action which came from rank and file members of the Stalinist and Social Democratic parties became increasingly stronger. In such a context, the entry into the SFIO suggested by Trotsky would have enabled the French Bolshevik-Leninists to intersect those Social Democratic workers who were moving to the left, and to win them to the Trotskyist programme and organisation. The entrist operation was necessary insofar as it was not possible to have any influence on the developments within the SFIO merely through an external activity oriented to the toiling masses who adhered to Social Democratic ideas.

But even the ‘French turn’ met a strong opposition within several sections of the ICL. In the Italian group, Leonetti opposed it on principle, and Tresso and Naville were the leaders of a faction in the Ligue which fought against entrism on the basis of a criticism of the hasty, strained methods with which Molinier – to whom Trotsky had communicated his impatience, due to the hesitations of the majority of the French section – wanted to carry it out. After his break with the NOI, Ravazzoli joined the Italian Socialist Party led by Pietro Nenni, where he loyally remained until his death in 1940. In any case, it was probably the differences around the adoption of the entrist tactic which caused the failure of the attempt to reorganise the Italian Bolshevik-Leninist ranks that had started in the spring of 1934.

Popular Frontism

In the meantime, on 17 August 1934 the French Communist Party and the SFIO had signed a pact for unity of action which was to lead to the creation of the ‘Popular Front’ coalition. In July 1935 the Seventh World Congress of the Stalinist Comintern nonchalantly made a 180-degree turn away from its ‘Third Period’ policy, and generalised to all its sections the new Popular Front orientation that had been launched in France. Such an orientation – as history has shown several times – amounted to the subordination of the working class to the bourgeoisie by intensifying the class-collaborationist rôle of the bourgeois workers’ parties, with the aim of saving the capitalist state from ruin, that is, of preventing the proletarian upsurge from moving to the overthrow of bourgeois class rule.

For Trotsky and the Fourth Internationalist movement, the attitude to the Popular Front became a cornerstone: ‘In reality, the People’s Front strategy is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism.’ [4] These words, written by Trotsky in mid-July 1936, had no great effect on Leonetti. It was in fact during the period considered here (1935-36) that the process of his departure from Trotskyism made an important, qualitative leap when he started wavering more and more towards Stalinist Popular Frontism. On the other hand, Leonetti himself admitted this in the statement of February 1962 quoted above: ‘As a matter of fact, ever since the time of the Popular Fronts, I started to be convinced of the political correctness of the positions of the Communist Party, and that my criticism of Trotskyism ripened.’

In fact Leonetti was an implacable ‘Menshevik’ critic of the Bolshevik-Leninist policy of opposition to Popular Fronts, to which he counterposed the slogan: ‘The Popular Front to Power!’ [5] His stay in the Trotskyist movement did not last much longer. Having been re-elected to the International Secretariat by the ICL’s International Conference of July 1936, he definitely quit the movement some time later, and he subsequently joined the Stalinist movement – as a turncoat Trotskyist.

The article by Professor Moscato keeps totally silent about this period of Leonetti’s political biography. But here, too, such a slip is not at all surprising. The adaptation and capitulation to Popular Frontism – which are absolutely incompatible with any claim to the mantle of Trotsky – are in fact a constant feature of the policy followed by the Pabloites, both in Italy and elsewhere. More than that, the Italian LCR – which Moscato worthily represents – has always made itself conspicuous by its Popular Front opportunism, the latest variant of which was expressed by the slogan of the ‘Workers Alternative’, adopted by the LCR at its Second National Congress in Milan on 25–28 March 1983.

At that congress, the sole critical voice against the line of the ‘Workers Alternative’ was that of Domenico Sedran (Adolfo Carlini) – an honorary member of the LCR, an old member of the Marseilles group of the NOI in the 1930s, and one of the leaders of the Spanish Trotskyist organisation during the Civil War of 1936–39. [6] In his intervention, ‘comrade Carlini’ quite correctly denounced the policy of the ‘Workers Alternative’ as a policy of a Popular Front – a Popular Front to which the LCR was going to give a left cover, and thus play a rôle similar to that of the centrist POUM in Spain. Needless to say, the LCR leaders, including Moscato, completely ignored his intervention.

Back to the Fold

After his break from Trotskyism, Leonetti stubbornly and persistently sought a reconciliation with Stalinism. During the Second World War he took part in the French Resistance movement in the Haute-Loire region, that is, in the same region in which Pietro Tresso – who had been arrested by the Vichy police in Marseilles together with other Trotskyist militants in June 1942 – was imprisoned, and, though ‘liberated’ together with all the other detainees by partisan activity, was eventually put to death by Stalinist killers between November 1943 and June 1944. Leonetti must have known that his old comrade ‘Blasco’ had been arrested and condemned, since the press had carried articles about it. Perhaps he also heard about his ‘liberation’. Whilst being very close to the men and leaders of the PCF in Haute-Loire, however, he took no steps to try to free Tresso from his Stalinist ‘liberators’. For her part, Tresso’s companion never had any doubt that Leonetti had been an ‘accomplice of Blasco’s assassins’ [7] and one of those responsible for the silence on the circumstances of Tresso’s death. That silence, in itself, is strong evidence against Leonetti.

As the editor of L’Appel de la Haute-Loire, the PCF-sponsored paper of the Resistance movement in that region of France, Leonetti was readmitted into the PCF in 1944 (or in 1945, according to other sources), and was entrusted with the Stalinist party’s local press and cadre school. This means that the Stalinist leaders had for some time tested his loyalty and ‘the suppleness of his spine’, to use an expression of which Tresso was very fond. What tests did he have to pass to win the right to be welcomed in the PCF’s ranks and even the PCF’s propagandist and educational apparatus – 14 years after his expulsion from the PCd’I and after more than six years of Trotskyist membership? We do not know. On the other hand, it is clear that Leonetti’s return to the Stalinist fold occurred during a period in which the persecution of revolutionary forces, planned by Stalin and carried out by his henchmen, was going on all over the world, skilfully supervised by the Kremlin’s obedient representatives – the Togliattis, the Thorezes, the Ho Chi Minhs and their ilk.

Embracing Togliatti

As soon as the news of Leonetti’s admission into the PCF’s ranks reached Italy, Togliatti intervened with all his authority to have the admission annulled. In the eyes of Italy’s ‘little Stalin’, former oppositionists, however much they might be turncoats, could not be readmitted so easily without even publicly admitting their ‘Trotskyist crimes’ and reciting the customary mea culpa. Consequently, Leonetti had to reconcile himself to remaining separate from ‘his’ party for a further 15 years, during which he obviously sought to win the pardon and confidence of the Italian Stalinists.

In February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU brought to light the hidden inter-bureaucratic struggle which is usually (and wrongly) called a struggle for ‘de-Stalinisation’. The denunciation of Stalin’s crimes from the platform of the highest body of the bureaucracy shocked the ‘Communist World’ as a whole. Later, despite the Hungarian and Polish events of 1956, the Twenty-Second Congress of the CPSU in October 1961 seemed to confirm that ‘de-Stalinisation’, far from being a mere propaganda stunt at a certain juncture in the Cold War, was an authentic, continuing process. It was, apparently, a symptom that things were changing. Leonetti was among those who were convinced that this was the case. On the other hand, the ‘de-Stalinisation’ process opened up new possibilities for his readmission into the PCI. It is no accident that his 1962 statement includes immoderate praise for the Khrushchevite ‘new look’.

For his part, Togliatti was none too enthusiastic about the new course taken by the Soviet bureaucracy. However, whereas in 1956 Togliatti had succeeded in controlling and channelling the ‘de-Stalinisation’ drive of the Twentieth Congress, in 1961 things started slipping out of his hands. An ‘innovating’, ‘anti-dogmatic’ faction headed by Giorgio Amendola began to take shape within the PCI, a faction that championed the need to ‘renew’ the party along the lines of Khrushchevism. Within this framework, the readmission of Leonetti to the Italian Stalinist party certainly represented a good opportunity, to Togliatti and to the party as a whole, to show their own alignment with ‘de-Stalinisation’, while continuing at the same time to follow the old Stalinist course in spite of some ‘anti-sectarian’ concessions to the Italian Khrushchevites. Furthermore, Leonetti seemed to have all the necessary prerequisites for confirming the continuity from Gramsci to Togliatti and the legitimacy of the PCI as the only historical representative of the class interests of the Italian proletariat. To see how Leonetti was fitted for this rôle, it is only necessary to examine again his 1962 statement and all his subsequent writings.

As for this statement, which is reproduced in its entirety as an appendix to this article, it should be noted that Professor Moscato has busied himself with falsifying its historico-political significance. ‘However, his [Leonetti’s] readmission [into the PCI] was not a capitulation’, the LCR’s spokesman informed us from the pages of Il Manifesto on the morrow of Leonetti’s death. And in the obituary he wrote for Bandiera Rossa, Moscato nailed his colours to the mast by stating that Leonetti’s statement, which could well ‘appear as the symptom of a capitulation’, was on the contrary a mere political mistake ‘with many, a great many, extenuating circumstances’. To be frank, we looked carefully for such extenuating circumstances, but we only succeeded in finding nothing but a confirmation of the awareness and conviction with which Leonetti disowned the banner of Trotskyism.

On the other hand, in the interests of his reconciliation with Togliatti, Leonetti always kept silent about the prominent rôle played by ‘Comrade Ercoli’ in the Stalinist campaign of slander, persecution, and physical liquidation of Trotskyists, Bordigists and Anarchists, and even of those Stalinists who failed to align themselves promptly with bureaucratic commands. For it is a fact that Togliatti was foremost in encouraging and giving orders to Stalin’s secret police killers. By way of an example, here is what Togliatti wrote in the autumn of 1936:

‘It is necessary to free the international workers’ movement of Trotskyist garbage once and for all. It is necessary to prevent any tendency to consider the Trotskyist counter-revolutionary sect as a faction of the working class movement ... The workers’ movement as a whole and all the organisations of the working class must be radically and permanently cleansed of the bandits who have slipped into its ranks in order to smuggle in the instructions and slogans of Fascism, and to carry out the mission that the class enemy has entrusted to them.’

Leonetti ‘forgot’ that it was precisely words of this kind that armed the killers of thousands of revolutionary militants – from Siberia to Barcelona and from Paris to Mexico City.

A Stalinist ‘Internationalism’ of a New Type

To cut a long story short, Leonetti always preferred to turn a blind eye – or to be blind in both eyes – in the presence of Togliatti’s crimes and, in general, to the whole counter-revolutionary policy followed by Italian Stalinism from the ‘Salerno turn’ in 1944 until our own time. Whoever examines his writings trying to find some criticism of Stalinist policy both before and after his readmission will be severely disappointed. But it seems that there is still someone who persists without embarrassment in calling him ‘a Communist and an internationalist who never turned his coat’!

But from the second half of the 1930s Leonetti’s ‘Communism’ was the same variable-geometry Stalinism of the Togliattis, the Longos, the Berlinguers and the Nattas. As for his ‘internationalism’, it was for the most part a fiction. An example of this ‘internationalism’ can be found in his written exchange of 1973 with the then General Secretary of the PCI, Enrico Berlinguer. Here is what Leonetti wrote to the inventor of the ‘historic compromise’: ‘What is indispensable today is for the Communist parties of the enlarged EEC to create an instrument of work which would be a sort of international information and coordinating centre for working class action throughout capitalist Europe.’ A small-size Cominform then, or, as one would say today, a ‘mini-Cominform’? ‘We shouldn’t be afraid of words ... our response to the challenge of the multinational enterprises should be made concrete by the organisation of a conference ... of the Communist and Socialist parties, a conference which should also be attended by left-oriented Catholic movements, trade unionists and those progressive people who agree to work for a democratic and Socialist Europe.’

This new ‘European internationalism’ of Leonetti, based on the naive trust that Stalinist, Social Democratic and trade union bureaucrats would unite with all ‘progressive people’ and create a new proletarian internationalism, did not meet with the interest for which its inventor had hoped. In fact, Berlinguer, the super-transformist, took another road. As Sebastiano Timpanaro correctly observed in May 1979, referring to Leonetti’s approach:

‘Even if a “mini-Cominform” was not created, we had an attempt after 1973 aimed at establishing links between the Italian, Spanish and French Communist parties – so-called Eurocommunism ... an attempt to become part of capitalist and “Atlantic” Europe. Berlinguer went so far as to declare that, under the protection of NATO, he felt more confident in building Socialism; Carrillo’s main concern was to get rid of the qualification of Leninism and make every possible concession to the Spanish bourgeoisie; while Marchais had his party congress adopt, unanimously of course, a renunciation of the goal of proletarian dictatorship ...’

Faced with this disgusting reality, Leonetti once more turned a blind eye, and in his reply to Timpanaro, insisted on defending Eurocommunist Stalinism by bringing up his old 1962 idiocies: ‘But even if we, as Timpanaro suggests, consider the Communist parties as “irredeemable”, and if at least in Italy they still regroup, willy-nilly, the best of the working class and of the toiling people, with whom then can we go forward along the path to Socialism?’ Thus Leonetti’s too often proclaimed ‘internationalism’ turned into a pitiful fraud. But the ‘internationalism’ of Professor Moscato and his ilk is no better. In fact it is well known that the self-styled United Secretariat of the Fourth International, to whose Italian section Moscato belongs, has among its principal leaders some figures who have no scruples about renouncing Trotskyism, or declaring from the rooftops their readiness to renounce the horrid label of Trotskyism, the better to serve the kind of Stalinism or petit-bourgeois nationalism that may be fashionable in any given country during any particular time.

Gramsci or Trotsky?

Before concluding this article, it would be useful to pause for a while on the fable of the ‘identity of views’ between Trotsky and Gramsci. Such a fable is based on the fact that Gramsci ‘broke’ with Stalinism during his prison years, after the ‘turn of 1930’ – a turn which Leonetti had continuously championed. This is a question with which we shall deal in future. What we want to emphasise here is that Leonetti used such an ostensible ‘identity’ as a voucher to justify politically his adherence to Gramscism and Togliattism. It was a rather dubious historico-political operation which was made easier by the cooperation of a series of ‘Trotskyist’ intellectuals and unscrupulous ‘historians of the workers’ movement’.

As a matter of fact, Gramsci’s ‘moral break’ with Stalinism was only a temporary disagreement with the ‘Third Period’ policy, and he was reabsorbed after the Popular Front counter-turn of 1935. If this be the case, then certain things said in the article which Tresso wrote after Gramsci’s death seem somewhat rash. But whereas Tresso could not know anything about Gramsci’s evolution during the 11 years of his imprisonment, Leonetti was able to read several testimonies on that period. But he used them in his own unfortunate way.

To Leonetti, the ‘identity of views’ of Gramsci and Trotsky lies above all in their ostensibly identical assessment of the ‘period of transition’ from Fascism to Communism, as well as in the fact that they both raised the slogan of a constituent assembly for Italy. But this is a superficial and utterly false equation. As a matter of fact, whereas Trotsky emphasised that the ‘democratic transition’ was only one possible variant of the post-Fascist development – linked to and dependent upon the revolutionary awakening of the working class – Gramsci saw such an event as ‘the most likely one’, and, on this basis, put forward the slogan of a constituent assembly within the framework of a gradualist, Menshevik, Popular Front perspective. It is not by chance that, a few days before his death, Gramsci let the PCd’I know that ‘the Popular Front in Italy is the constituent assembly’. The Stalinist continuity between Gramsci and Togliatti was thus re-established, after the interlude of the ‘Third Period’.

On the other hand, the lack of identity between the views of Trotsky and Gramsci is shown by several other bits of evidence. According to the testimony of Bruno Tosin [8], whilst opposing the ‘turn of 1930’ not only did Gramsci hold that the party had been right to expel the Trotskyist oppositionists, but in his Prison Notebooks he criticises Trotsky every time he mentions him, ever inclined to legitimise the continuity from Lenin to Stalin.

Epilogue: Leonetti’s ‘Testament’

On 26 January 1985 l’Unità published Leonetti’s Testament, dated 24 February 1982. Bandiera Rossa immediately hastened to reproduce it with a distinct emphasis (no. 2, 10 February 1985). It is a document which cannot but give rise to a sense of embarrassment if read without the distorting lenses of opportunist ecumenism, and in the light of the whole political record of its author. Feeling the end of his life approaching, Leonetti tried to recover the ‘revolutionary’ virginity he had long since lost:

‘I, Alfonso Leonetti, sane and free from any coercion, formally declare that I am and remain a consistent revolutionary Marxist, and therefore a Leninist internationalist, and that I do not disown the struggles I made against Stalinism under the banner of Trotsky and the Fourth International – the utopia that will turn this barbarous and disintegrating society into the Cité Communiste of a liberated mankind.’

A turncoat Stalinist then? Maybe, but only to ease his conscience before he breathed his last. Unfortunately for Leonetti, however, fine words cannot erase the truth.

We do not usually judge a man by what he says or writes about himself. As Trotsky was fond of saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And history shows that Leonetti was a turncoat Trotskyist, a political renegade who struggled for years against the Fourth International side by side with the Stalinist inquisitors after having betrayed Bolshevism-Leninism.

That is why we willingly leave to the LCR the pitiful satisfaction of claiming Leonetti’s heritage and of turning him into almost a hero. Leonetti was not one of our people. He was made of the same flesh and blood of the capitulators – the Zinovievs, the Radeks and the Terracinis... The reborn Fourth International has no need of such ‘heroes’. Our heroes – from Leon Trotsky to Rudolf Klement, from Pietro Tresso to the thousands of anonymous revolutionary fighters who were exterminated by Stalinist or capitalist-imperialist repression – never turned their coats, not even before the firing squads of their executioners.


1. Giustizia and Libertà was a liberal anti-Fascist movement formed by Italian émigrés in Paris. It became a part of the Action Party that was formed in 1942. [Editor’s note]

2. The Italian Communist Party was originally known as the Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I), but became the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Communist International in May–June 1943 and on the eve of the fall of Italian Fascism in July that year. This change of name was to emphasis the ‘national’ character of Togliatti’s Stalinist party, which was by then involved in a large Popular Front bloc, the Comitato delle Opposizioni. [Editor’s note]

3. The ICL was the new name adopted by the ILO at its plenum of 13 September 1933 simultaneously with its turn to the Fourth International.

4. L.D. Trotsky, The Dutch Section and the International, 15–16 July 1936, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, New York 1977, p. 370.

5. Minutes of the meeting of the ICL International Secretariat, 12 July 1935.

6. Cf. Carlini in Spain, Revolutionary History, Volume 4, nos. 1/2, pp. 253–64, and the obituary in this issue.

7. See her letter to the Comité de Solidarité Blasco dated 4 September 1974.

8. Tosin was a fellow prisoner in the same gaol as Gramsci

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011