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

Paolo Casciola

Nicola Di Bartolomeo (1901–1946)

This article first appeared under the title of 40 anni fa moriva un rivoluzionario: Nicola Di Bartolomeo (Fosco) (1901–1946), Il Comunista, Volume 7, nos. 20–21–22 (new series), February 1986, pp. 68–71, and was reproduced in a slightly altered form in the pamphlet Appunti di storia del trotskysmo italiano (1930–1945), pp. 35–43, published by the Centro Studi Pietro Tresso later in the year to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of his death. It has been translated by the author and edited by Revolutionary History. We have already published an English translation of Di Bartolomeo’s report from Barcelona to the French PCI, The Activity of the Bolshevik-Leninists in Spain and its Lessons in The Spanish Civil War: The View from the Left, Revolutionary History, Volume 4, nos. 1–2, Winter 1991–92, pp. 225–41. An obituary composed by the Political Bureau of the POC appeared at the time in Socialist Appeal, February 1946.

THE JANUARY of this year [1986] marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of Nicola Di Bartolomeo, one of the leading figures in the first 15 years of Italian Trotskyism. Known in the Trotskyist movement under the pseudonyms of Emiliano Vigo, Salino, Venturini, Roland and, in particular, Fosco, he was born in Resina (Naples) on 12 March 1901. At 14 he joined the Federazione Giovanile Socialista (Socialist Youth Federation). Later, at the time of the split of the Partito Socialista Italiano (Socialist Party of Italy) during January 1921 in Leghorn, he became a member of the Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I). An engineering worker, he was sentenced to five years imprisonment in 1922 because of his anti-militarist activity. Released after serving four and a half years, in June 1926 he resumed his party activity, but was forced to flee abroad. After being convicted in his absence, the party helped to him to escape illegally to France in 1927. In Marseilles he led the Communist groups in the Mediterranean area until, after being arrested by the French police and threatened with expulsion from that country – which would have meant handing him over to the Italian Fascist police – the party moved him to Paris.

After the Third National Congress of the PCd’I (held in Lyons on 20–26 January 1926), which confirmed the victory of Gramsci’s ‘centrist-bureaucratic’ tendency, Fosco supported the positions of the Bordigist left wing, strongly criticised the Menshevik policy carried out in China by the bureaucratised Communist International, and a short while after his move to Paris, was eventually expelled from the party in 1928. A member of the Frazione di Sinistra (Left Faction) of the PCd’I, he moved closer to Trotskyism after making contact with the Nuova Opposizione Italiana (NOI), the International Secretariat of the International Left Opposition (ILO) and Trotsky himself. From 1930 he led a pro-Trotskyist tendency within the Bordigist faction arguing for the necessity of defending the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state, and championing the relevance of the Leninist tactic of the proletarian united front. In 1931, after six months of debate and political struggle, Fosco was expelled from the faction, and, in the August of that year, joined the NOI, the Italian Trotskyist organisation.

Whilst taking part in the life of the NOI, Fosco worked in several engineering factories of the Paris region, and threw himself deeply into the activities and struggles of the French working class movement both on the political level – he joined the Ligue Communiste, the French section of the ILO – and at a trade union level. So in March 1933 he was a delegate at the Eighth Congress of the twentieth Regional Federation of the CGTU. Within the NOI Fosco opposed the centrist leadership of Alfonso Leonetti, Paolo Ravazzoli and Mario Bavassano, going as far as to suggest the dissolution of the Italian Trotskyist organisation in February 1933. In his struggle against the Gramscite-ordinovista opportunism of the NOI leaders, he found himself ranged alongside Pietro Tresso (Blasco), though probably on rather different positions, to such an extent that the NOI expelled both him and Blasco at a meeting held on 9 April 1933. The intervention of Trotsky and the International Secretariat resulted in the ILO rescinding this in a plenum held at the end of May 1933. But the crisis in the NOI, which had been going on since its inception, only worsened in the following months.

The final act of the crisis began simultaneously with the abandonment of the old policy of reforming the Stalinist Comintern and the adoption of the perspective of a new international, a perspective developed by Trotsky in June–July 1933. About half of the NOI’s leaders opposed this turn. Two of them, Bavassano and Gaetana Teresa Recchia, broke in October 1933 with both the NOI and Trotskyism, and went over to a semi-Trotskyist, semi-Bordigist group, the Union Communiste. This event coincided with the de facto dissolution of the NOI which from June onwards ceased to have a bulletin of its own. In the spring of 1934 there was a rapprochement between Blasco and Leonetti, probably because of the fight that they both waged against the liquidationist positions of Ravazzoli. Strengthened by an influx of new forces – a group of oppositionists from within the PCd’I led by Angiolino Luchi (Metallo) and the long-time member of the PCd’I Veniero Spinelli (Spartaco Travagli), all of whom had been expelled from the party because of their opposition to the line of the Stalinist Comintern on Germany during the past few years – the Italian Trotskyists sought to reorganise their ranks. In March 1934 the first issue of La Verità (The Truth) appeared, the ‘Organ of the Italian Section of the International Communist League (Bolshevik-Leninist)’. But that episode, too, was short-lived, for after its second issue, dated April 1934, La Verità ceased publication.

The factor sparking off the new crisis was probably the end of the stage when the activity of the International Communist League (ICL) (the new name adopted by the ILO in September 1933 in accordance with its turn towards a Fourth International), which had been mainly oriented to left centrist groupings, shifted to an entrist tactic in the Social Democratic parties, a policy which had been put forward by Trotsky since February 1934. Faced with the failure of this attempt to reorganise the Italian Bolshevik-Leninists, Fosco started up a ‘unofficial’ Trotskyist group round the paper La Nostra Parola (Our Word), the first issue of which appeared in August 1934. In April 1935, carrying out the entry tactic called for by Trotsky, he led a majority of the members of the Gruppo La Nostra Parola into the Partito Socialista Italiano (the Italian Socialist Party led by Pietro Nenni, not to be confused with the Maximalist PSI led by Angelica Balabanova). Inside that party they found the Gruppo Bolscevico-Leninista (GBL) led by Blasco. But the two groups were unable to reach political agreement and so unite, which would have given them greater opportunities in their entrist work. The move to closer relations between the GBL and the Gruppo La Nostra Parola only started in early 1936, but had no result, as both groups were expelled from the PSI in January 1937 charged with carrying out Trotskyist faction work – an accusation that was probably the result of Stalinist pressure on the PSI.

After this the Gruppo La Nostra Parola practically ceased to exist. In fact, most of its members decided to go to Spain, where it seemed that a revolution was taking place. Fosco, who was living in France without papers and under false names, and who had already been arrested for this reason during the 1929 Red May Day in St Denis, was detected by the French police, and in April 1936 he had to flee to Spain, together with his companion, Virginia Gervasini. Upon his arrival in Barcelona, he was arrested on 5 May because he had no identity papers, but some time later he was released because of a campaign launched by the Anarcho-Syndicalist CNT and the centrist POUM.

From the autumn of 1935 the ICL had no section in Spain. The old Izquierda Comunista Española had merged with the Catalan Bloque Obrer i Camperol to form the POUM. However, the break by the old Spanish oppositionists from the Trotskyist movement did not occur until January 1936, when the POUM supported the electoral programme of the Popular Front. But after the fighting in Barcelona on 19 July – in which Fosco, side by side with POUM members, took part – and after the Conference for the Fourth International held at the end of July, there was a certain rapprochement between the Trotskyists and the POUM. On 5 August 1936 a delegation of the Trotskyist International Secretariat and the French Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste, led by Jean Rous, arrived in Barcelona. Their mission was to establish direct contact with the POUM and to offer it international aid. Rous soon got in touch with Fosco, whom the POUM Executive Committee had put in charge of the foreign volunteers who had come to fight in the POUM militias. During the same period the Gruppo Bolchevique-Leninista was formed in Barcelona, which declared its adherence to the Fourth International. It was mainly composed of foreign Trotskyists, and Fosco played a leading rôle within it over the whole period. He was also in touch with the dissident tendency created in France by Raymond Molinier.

From the first days after the arrival of the Trotskyist delegation, serious differences began to emerge between Rous and Fosco over the policy to be adopted towards the POUM. Discussions on the question only deepened the differences until Fosco, whom Rous accused of wanting to liquidate the Spanish group into the POUM, broke with the official Trotskyist movement, and was then expelled by the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninist organisation. Subsequently he strengthened his relations with Molinier, and worked at building an alternative Trotskyist group to the ‘official’ one. The Le Soviet group, or cell, the result of his efforts, was probably founded in the final months of 1936 or the following January. It produced a very modest French-language typewritten paper, Le Soviet, which was published until the end of 1937. The members of this group, though not joining the POUM, collaborated closely with it, and sharply polemicised against the Sección Bolshevique-Leninista of Spain, the new name of the Barcelona GBL.

In January 1938 Fosco returned to France, where he joined and was active in the Parti Communiste Internationaliste led by Molinier and Pierre Frank. He wrote a long series of articles on the events in Spain for the PCI’s paper, La Commune. After the founding conference of the Fourth International (held on 3 September in Périgny) he was a member of the ‘Molinierist’ delegation which started negotiations with the representatives of the US Trotskyist party, James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman, with the aim of unifying the two French groups. In December of that year Fosco, together with his comrades in Molinier’s PCI, entered the Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan (PSOP), a left-centrist grouping which came out of the crisis of French Social Democracy in June 1938. The new entrist experience was even shorter than the previous one, for on 3 June 1939 Fosco and his comrades were expelled from the PSOP at the request of Marceau Pivert, the undisputed leader of the party.

In view of the coming war, the PCI had decided to move some of its leadership abroad, including Molinier, Frank and Fosco. In July 1939 Fosco went to Brussels with a false passport, and subsequently reached England in order to arrange the move to London of the delegation of the French PCI with the British Molinierists. Back in Paris for a short stay, he was taken by surprise by the declaration of war. Fosco was then arrested whilst trying to get over the Franco-Belgian border, and was imprisoned at Lille. Following this, he was interned at the French concentration camp at Vernet in the Pyrenees. He was released after the armistice between Italy and France in June 1940. His freedom, however, was short-lived, as a little later he was arrested again and handed over by the French authorities to the Italian Fascist police. On 30 September 1940 Fosco was tried and sentenced to five years confino (deportation) on the Tremiti islands off Apulia in the Adriatic.

At the confino in the Tremiti islands, the prisoners were organised in collectives according to their political persuasion. When Fosco arrived there on 10 October 1940, he met Cristoforo Salvini (Tosca) who had been a member of both the Gruppo La Parola Nostra and the Le Soviet group, and who had fought in the POUM’s Lenin Column of international volunteers in Spain. With his help Fosco began to organise a Trotskyist nucleus of deportees. Later on this nucleus was strengthened by the arrival of a young revolutionary, Bruno Nardini, who had been active in the ranks of Molinier’s PCI, and who had been arrested in February 1940 in France, tried in May, and handed over to the Italian authorities in June. He arrived at the Tremiti Islands on 7 May 1942. Among the other comrades who belonged to the Fosco-led group, the Venetians Giuseppe Bortoluzzi and his companion Maria De Fanti deserve a mention.

The deportees were released on 22 August 1943, on the eve of the arrival of the Anglo-American forces. The tiny Fosco-led Trotskyist grouping adopted the name Centro Nazionale Provvisorio per la Costruzione del Partito Comunista Internazionalista (IV Internazionale) (Provisional National Centre for the Building of the International Communist Party [Fourth International]), and on 15 December 1943 they put up a poster in Bari bearing the title ‘To the Workers of the Whole World’. Despite the political weaknesses of that document, the Italian Trotskyists started intense propaganda activity in conditions that were extremely favourable for the polarisation of a left opposition outside the traditional reformist parties. But the comrades led by Fosco, who were concentrated in Naples, were unable to assess correctly and take advantage of the huge political opportunities they had. Instead of putting themselves forward as an independent political force able to attract to a revolutionary perspective the left centrist formations which opposed the opportunism and class collaborationism of Togliatti’s party, they chose to enter the Partito Socialista di Unità Proletaria (PSIUP) (Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity), the new name adopted by the PSI in August 1943.

In October 1943 the Naples branch of the Italian Communist Party suffered the so-called ‘Montesanto split’, and one month later the left wing splitters started the reconstruction of the trade union movement by founding the ‘red’ Confederazione Generale del Lavoro which was led by the long-serving supporter of the Bordigists, Enrico Russo. Fosco, who officially represented the PSIUP inside the red CGL, became one of its leaders and put forward left positions within its ranks. On 29 December 1943, at the first congress of the rebuilt trade union leagues, he was appointed as a member of the Executive Committee of the Neapolitan Chamber of Labour. In January 1944 Fosco went to Bari to attend the second National Council of the PSIUP as the delegate of the Socialist exiles. At about the same time he also took part in a trade union congress at Bari organised by the Stalinists in order to liquidate the red CGL, and there he moved a motion of his own in favour of trade union unity, which was carried, thus thwarting the efforts of the bureaucrats. At the Salerno Congress of the ‘red’ CGL in February 1944, Fosco, as a delegate from the Torre Annunziata Chamber of Labour, denounced the anti-working class economic policy pursued by Badoglio’s government, and argued for the necessity of a ‘reconstruction’ which would be to the advantage of the toilers and not of capitalism, adding that trade union unity should only be reached on a class struggle platform. The motion that he moved (which was carried unanimously) called for a radical transformation of society through the socialisation of the major means of production and exchange. Immediately after the ‘Rome Pact’ and the founding of the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL), despite the PCI’s manoeuvres against the ‘red’ CGL, Fosco supported the latter joining the CGIL, arguing for the necessity not to hinder trade union unity. In the same period he was expelled from the PSIUP.

After his release from the confino, Fosco had tried to establish contact with the Fourth International. In the first months of 1944 he got in touch with an American sailor who was close to the Workers Party, the organisation created by Shachtman after his expulsion from the Fourth International. Subsequently Fosco contacted other Trotskyists in uniform, Charles Curtiss, a leader of the US Socialist Workers Party, and Charles Van Gelderen, a member of the British Revolutionary Communist Party. It was the latter who helped Fosco most. In about the middle of 1944, after he heard that posters had appeared in Foggia supporting the Fourth International, Van Gelderen obtained false passes to cross the Anglo-American zone of occupation to Foggia, and went there with Fosco in July 1944. There they met Romeo Mangano, the leader of the old Apulian Federation of the PCd’I which had remained on left Bordigist positions. The Federation, which had put up the posters for a Fourth International, was completely ignorant of the existence of the Trotskyist Fourth International which had been founded six years before.

Fosco immediately forged a political alliance with the Apulian Federation, and in February 1945 the Trotskyist group that he led merged with the Federation to form the Partito Operaio Comunista (Bolscevico-Leninista) (POC[B-L]). The agreement with the Apulians was not preceded by any preliminary deep-going discussions, and the resulting fusion was carried out on an essentially formal organisational basis. From its beginnings such an initial misunderstanding was deeply felt by the new party, and kept it in permanent crisis. The POC(B-L), which had been recognised as the Italian Section of the Fourth International towards the middle of 1945, was eventually expelled at the International’s Second World Congress (held in April 1948 in Paris) because of the triumph within its ranks of the Bordigist positions of the old Mangano-led Apulian Federation.

Fosco, however, did not take part in the political struggle that counterposed the Trotskyist minority of the POC(B-L) to the ultra-left positions of the Apulians. Death overtook him suddenly on 10 January 1946 owing to a trivial illness which could not be dealt with because of lack of medicine. The symbol of the Fourth International was engraved on his headstone.

Fosco’s passing was an irretrievable loss for the Trotskyist movement as a whole. Whatever his political mistakes, he was one of the very few experienced comrades of the Trotskyist ‘Old Guard’ who remained faithful to revolutionary ideas, after having survived unbelievable privations and difficulties, and the joint persecution of Stalinism, Fascism and the ‘democratic’ regimes. Fosco was part and parcel of that handful of men and women who swam against the stream – that revolutionary minority who sought to tear aside the darkness of the ‘midnight in the century’ with the torch of Bolshevism-Leninism. Comrades like him put fear into all the powerful, since their struggle was indissolubly linked to the cause of the exploited and the oppressed of the world. It is for working class youth of today to take up the banner for which he struggled and suffered, and make his memory live again in the hearts of all those who work and fight for a better world.

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011