Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2
The Broken Resistance
Carlo Guerriero & Fausto Rondinelli
Elena Aga-Rossi & Victor Zaslavsky
THESE books each deal with different aspects of the years immediately preceding and following the end of the Second World War in Italy. They are jointly reviewed here as they all seek to shed light on the Italian Resistance and its consequences after 25 April 1945, the official date of Italy’s ‘liberation’ by the Allied forces, as well as on the policies embraced by the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and its rôle in the outcome of this historical period.
In the past decade or so, the treatment afforded to the Resistance by successive Italian governments, historians and intellectuals of both the left and right has undergone a notable development, symptomatic of a wider international trend towards the obliteration of any class analysis of historical events. So, whilst it is not uncommon to see the Resistance termed as a ‘second Risorgimento’, painting an idealised and grossly inaccurate picture of the Italian people fully united in an attempt to repel the Nazi invader, the parties of the Italian official left, and most notably the PCI, emphasise the contribution made by the highly ‘democratically responsible’ and ‘nationally aware’ working masses ‘in guaranteeing Italy’s future as a nation’.
In more principled quarters of the left, the Resistance has often been seen as an instance of the more general ‘revolution betrayed’. So, in this interpretation we see an Italian working class politically conscious and developed, armed and poised for power, were it not for the betrayal of the PCI, which instructed it to surrender its weapons to the Allied Command, mainly thanks to the party’s moral authority amongst the workers and the critical rôle played by Stalin, as well as the lack of preparation displayed by other possible alternative parties or groups to the left of the PCI. Whilst these factors contain some truth, for many, including the authors reviewed here, they are only part of the story.
Nevertheless, in times when speaking of a working class attracts accusations of hopeless anachronism, with repeated calls from left and right in Italy to ‘forgive and forget’ the excesses of a small number of ‘hotheads’ wearing black or red shirts, all in the name of ‘national reconciliation’ and ‘looking to the future’, any work which seriously tackles these issues and attempts to debunk the myths surrounding the Italian Resistance should be warmly welcomed.
Riccardo Anfossi’s book, whose title means ‘The Broken Resistance’, is an important work in this respect, whether or not one agrees with all its thought-provoking arguments. The picture of the Resistance which emerges from it is far from comfortable and unproblematic, but it deserves careful consideration.
Anfossi’s premises are categorical: ‘One cannot... speak of a Resistance that has had all its premises betrayed, as some historians, coming above all from an Actionist [Partito d’Azione] background have done, for these premises had been clear from the outset, and the development and choices of a political line were therefore coherent with such premises.’ The Resistance was ‘limited from the start by its political line and by the immaturity of the consciousness of the proletariat which – willingly or more often than not otherwise – to varying degrees made this line its own’ (pp. 155–7).
The Resistance, which Anfossi sees as just a part of a Europe-wide largely spontaneous opposition ‘from below’, was by no means the determining factor behind the collapse of Fascism in Italy. Not only was Mussolini’s fall decided by the monarchy and the army, with big capital withdrawing its support from the ailing Fascist party from 1943, it is not even possible to speak of a consciously mature workers’ movement during the Resistance in Italy.
Anfossi warns against an essentially political reading of events during 1943–45 in Italy. He insists that the driving force behind class struggle and strikes in those years was not anti-Fascism or national liberation, but the boss and the factory, how to survive on an ever-decreasing pay, and how to procure food. He concedes that the strikes of March 1944 were clearly more political in nature, but this was partly due to the work carried out by the PCI, which meant that they took on an anti-German character and therefore linked in with the strivings of the anti-Fascist forces for national unity.
Although the massive strikes of 1944 have been hailed as a success because they showed the growing ‘maturity’ of the working class, their ultimately disappointing outcome was because the workers recognised that their daily struggle went beyond the programme of the strikes’ organisers, and they viewed both the Nazis and the Italian ruling class as their enemy. Although the PCI and other anti-Fascist Resistance forces were unable to meet the challenge of this spontaneous action ‘from below’, the Italian workers’ movement was unable to ‘go beyond the factory gates’ (p. 43). This was not merely due to the obstacles posed by Stalinism, as the problem ultimately relates to the immature consciousness of the working class.
Anfossi sees the partisan guerrillas as the driving force behind the Resistance, but warns that they again reflected the general characteristics of the Resistance. Their members mainly joined spontaneously and for the most diverse reasons, and they were from all walks of life. Militarily, the Resistance was ‘totally subject to the requirements of war and to the political needs of the Anglo-American Command’. In general, partisans were organised in squads, and numerical estimates vary between 1,500 and 9,000 individuals at the outset, growing to between 50,000 to 70,000 in 1944, and approximately 100,000 by the end. Of these, Anfossi calculates that about 50 per cent were grouped in Communist brigades, and 20 per cent in Actionist brigades, whilst the remaining 30 per cent comprised squads of various allegiances. Partisan squads never reflected a ‘clear political choice’, but were loosely aligned with one particular party. The Allies favoured this, for they never envisaged any major military rôle for groups which could prove difficult to control. Although a genuine partisan war was waged, Anfossi reiterates that ‘the war was won by the Allied forces, and the contribution of the partisan forces was absolutely secondary’. The Allies did not stifle the potential of the partisan Resistance, because it was ‘conceived as a subordinate to the Anglo-American imperialist army, and became the military arm of the politics of national unity to free the country from the Germans and include Italy in the Western bloc’ (pp. 56–8).
The partisan formations were brought under one command in 1944, both in the name of patriotism, and to prevent fraternisation between partisans and German soldiers. Allied control prevented them from acquiring any military significance, and the PCI disarmed them politically. The party’s constant efforts to subordinate class struggle to the patriotic war for national liberation meant that – save for very few exceptions – the partisans merely replicated bourgeois relations and excluded any concrete control by the masses over the territories liberated in Italy during 1944.
The PCI’s rôle in containing and channelling the radical demands of the working class cannot be underestimated. The various stages of this party’s policy have already been outlined in this journal (see Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 4, Spring 1995). What is important to emphasise is that the PCI’s attempt to become, in Togliatti’s words, ‘an Italian national party’ (p. 82), opposing any struggle aiming ‘to bring about any social or political transformation in a Socialist or Communist sense’ but ‘fighting for national liberation and for a progressive democratic regime’ (p. 80), precluded any other outcome for the Resistance. Exploiting its prestige within the working class as the party enjoying Stalin’s approval, ruthlessly expelling and persecuting all opposition, using the pretext of the Allies’ presence to rule out a priori any alternative course, and continuously promoting class collaboration, the PCI ‘turned into a mass all-class party, a party of government’ (p. 82), and subordinated all revolutionary demands to the reconstruction of the Italian state. The Italian proletariat was given the rôle of ‘the national subject, the backbone of the democratic bourgeois reconstruction’, able ‘to overcome any selfishness in its demands and its specific interests, so as to make its contribution to the needs of the fatherland in difficult times’ (p. 165), and to help restore Italy to its rightful position in the family of democratic nations.
Anfossi sees the Resistance as the spontaneous intervention of the Italian masses, the unifying character of which is – in the last analysis – a strong social and ethical protest against injustice, rather than a patriotic war of national liberation. He feels that these values must be understood and emphasised, as opposed to the mythologisation and cynical exploitation of the Resistance, most notably by the Italian left, for the purposes of the continuity of bourgeois rule, if we are to understand these crucial events in Italian history.
Notwithstanding the many valuable insights of this work and its various undoubtedly valid arguments about the Resistance, Anfossi leaves some crucial questions unresolved, and the issue of the immature consciousness of the Italian working class requires a much more detailed analysis. He says that the Italian proletariat was never able in a widespread sense to extend its struggles beyond the factories, and its demands became increasingly economic in nature. But is this a sign of its ‘immaturity’, or the effect of the workers’ declining political horizons resulting from the PCI’s increasingly evident renunciation of any political leadership, especially after the end of the war? It could be argued that Anfossi confuses the effect with the cause, as if he actually expected – in line with his party’s recent and rather selective embracing of aspects of Rosa Luxemburg’s thought – to find a class fully developed for a revolutionary struggle in the absence of any revolutionary vanguard, nay, often despite the conscious political betrayals of its supposed vanguard party.
Guerriero and Rondinelli review the history and vicissitudes of Milan’s Volante Rossa – Martiri Partigiani (Red Flying Squad – Partisan Martyrs), a name deriving from the term used during the partisan war in Italy to denote small squads based in the mountains which carried out brief incursions onto the plains. The Volante Rossa was formed towards the end of 1945 by Giulio Paggio, known as ‘Lieutenant Alvaro’, himself a former member of a volante rossa and later of a partisan brigade, so that members could help each other, or ‘find work for the unemployed ... and take part, always united, in all kinds of patriotic events’ (p. 12).
The group came to be comprised of up to about 50 men, mainly ex-partisan fighters, all of them working-class members of the PCI, from the many large and medium-sized factories which made Milan, with Turin and Genoa, part of Italy’s ‘industrial triangle’. Here, in the first three years after the end of the war, worked highly militant and radicalised workers, almost all unionised and politically quite conscious. The story of the Volante Rossa is the story of partisans and Communists who were reluctant and even unwilling to lay down their arms and put an end to the struggle that had been waged during the war.
The authors convincingly show that the Volante Rossa was no mere anachronism, no wishful thinking or nostalgia on the part of few men who simply could not come to terms with the fact that the ‘victory’ over the enemy did not become a victory for the Italian workers over their rulers. The bourgeoisie swiftly regained its control when the war officially ended in April 1945. To add insult to injury, a large number of former Fascists, from low-ranking officers to men responsible for the persecution, torture and killing of partisans and workers, were often given prominent positions, and as early as 22 June 1945 an amnesty had been granted to Fascist prisoners, which reduced by one-third their ‘political’ sentences, whilst absolving altogether those responsible for ‘non-political’ offences, such as organising Fascist squads, marching on Rome, and collaboration. PCI leader Togliatti aided this process, arguing in parliament in February 1949 that such men ‘had nevertheless a right to several mitigating circumstances, above all if we consider that we were then trying to provide the widest possible basis for the new republican state’ (p. 19). Furthermore, the Italian right revived, the Movimento Sociale Italiano was legally formed in 1946, and elements in the higher echelons of the army and the carabinieri, the secret services and the police, aided by big business finance and the American secret service, provoked the working class with the aim of destabilising the country.
Unsurprisingly, despite the best efforts and propaganda by the left parties, the amnesty did nothing to calm the harsh protests of the partisans and the public. The partisans’ numerous spontaneous reactions in those years were to prove a thorn in the side of the PCI leadership and its allies. The years following the end of the war were characterised by an extremely confrontational and highly charged climate. Faced with attacks from the right and a severe economic crisis, with rising unemployment, inflation and grossly inadequate wage levels, the working class responded with an almost uninterrupted series of strikes, demonstrations, occupations, meetings and protests. And workers were simply not ready to resume their jobs under bosses and managers who, but a few months before, were fighting in the opposite camp.
The Volante Rossa, far from being an extremist grouping involved in terrorism or armed actions divorced from the working class, invariably carried out its work within the ranks of the Milanese workers, and was highly respected by them. Its members adopted a uniform and distinctive insignia, and became highly visible participants on workers’ marches, demonstrations and protests. Acting as a workers’ defence force, the Volante Rossa undertook various tasks, including stewarding, acting as a rapid response unit, and intimidating and attacking Fascists or Fascist collaborators. The group came to be regarded as a force to be reckoned with, and was to be found in practically every action taken by Milanese workers during that time, until the fateful date of 27 January 1949, when two murders were attributed to the Volante Rossa, despite the style of action and choice of victims being atypical of the group. A highly publicised trial lasting until 1951 brought about the group’s demise. Although Giulio Paggio and a few of the group’s founders fled abroad, most members received prison sentences of varying severity.
The authors and some surviving members of the group do, however, readily recognise that the Volante Rossa had effectively ceased to exist by the summer of 1948, after the left’s crushing defeat in the April election – the Christian Democrats (DC) won 48.5 per cent of the vote, as against 31 per cent for the PSI/PCI Fronte Popolare – the end of the government of ‘national unity’, and the failed attempt on Togliatti’s life on 14 July 1948, with the spontaneous working-class rising being effectively contained by the PCI leadership. One Volante Rossa member bitterly remembers how, in the aftermath of the attempt on Togliatti, everyone was ready to rise in Milan, and the city could have easily been taken without much difficulty, given the relative lack of organisation of the police and the weaponry at the Volante’s disposal. However, the PCI leadership wanted to avoid the outlawing of the party which would follow an armed insurrection. The leaders of the PCI branch in Milan intercepted the Volante men, and they were, as a Volante Rossa member said, ‘swiftly stopped’:
‘... that was the end for us, because at that point we realised that the revolution would not be possible, whilst we had been thinking that we were on the eve of the working class taking power. It was clear that it was impossible. We had the chance to take power, but the situation did not allow it. The great majority of the party realised this, and at that point a cycle effectively came to an end. That blow plunged us into a crisis, so much so, that we asked ourselves what point there was in continuing the struggle at all.’ (p. 50)
The crucial issue was the relationship between the Volante Rossa – and, by extension, the Milanese and Italian working class – and the leadership of the PCI. Since everyone in the Volante Rossa was a PCI member, and, as the authors convincingly show, the PCI always remained their reference point, what did the PCI really think of the Volante men?
Since the group was a constant feature in working-class activity of the time, much of which being either organised by the PCI or saw its participation, was the Volante Rossa the ‘armed branch of the PCI’ (p. 109)? Far from it. Its closest official involvement with the party leadership began with the series of protests in the autumn of 1947, and culminated with the PCI’s Sixth Congress held in Milan in January 1948, when the Volante Rossa men were appointed as stewards, seemingly enjoying the approval of the party’s leadership. It is also not unreasonable to concur with the authors’ assumption that Paggio and his comrades could not have fled to Eastern Europe without the help of the PCI.
Nevertheless, the relationship between the Volante Rossa and the PCI was a troubled one, and it is more plausible that its apparent toleration by the party was a recognition of the group’s high prestige amongst Milanese workers and its excellent local experience and organisational skills. This relationship can, however, be appreciated only in the wider context of the PCI’s own national and international policy. The Volante Rossa was but another casualty of the course on which Togliatti and the party’s leadership had embarked prior to the end of the war, and of its logical consequences.
However, it is too easy to fall into the trap of cynicism with the benefit of hindsight. For the various reasons explained in the books reviewed here, we cannot doubt the extremely high level of radicalisation of sections of the Italian working class in the first postwar years, or the sincerity and commitment of all those involved. What is all the more poignant is the crucial rôle played by the PCI – thanks to the enormous prestige it enjoyed amongst the workers – in thwarting any revolutionary outcome and in bringing its constituency into line, with its repeated calls for discipline, respect for ‘democratic and republican legality’, consideration for the PCI’s constitutional partners, and so on.
In this light, it is not surprising that the partisan experience could not be absorbed into the party. So, from being ‘political immature’ individuals with a ‘low ideological level’ (p. 107), the partisans effectively became an enemy of the party. Togliatti argued as early as August 1945 that, to avoid possible provocations, the party ‘should take a firm stand against any surviving partisan organisations’. In September 1946, Togliatti told a closed party meeting that they were agent provocateurs within the party. They may have had ‘an honourable past’ and ‘actively participated in Communist organisations’, but had ‘now lost all links with the proletarian vanguard’, and had ‘become enslaved to foreign ideologies, if not servants of our worst enemies’ (pp. 112–3).
And despite lively dissent at grassroots level, in a situation of worsening provocations and defeats suffered by workers in the factories, the PCI succeeded in containing the discontent and channelling working-class activity into national reconstruction.
With Tom Behan’s book, we continue to analyse events in Milan, moving to the inner-city area of Porta Romana, perhaps more representative of the working-class composition of the city, characterised by the presence of numerous small and medium-sized factories and by a significant commuting workforce from the surrounding rural areas, than was the case of Sesto San Giovanni, the stronghold of the Volante Rossa.
Although one of the book’s strengths resides in the meticulous research carried out into the Porta Romana factories of the time and in the detailed recollections obtained from a large numbers of workers and political activists, another must surely lie in its in-depth analysis of the politics of the PCI in the years around 1945, and their impact on the Milanese working class. But Behan’s conclusions are indeed not limited to Porta Romana and are representative in many respects of Italy as a whole, and therefore constitute a very valuable contribution to any Marxist analysis of the political course embraced by the PCI, on the basis of ‘doppiezza’, that is, Togliatti’s policy of the ‘doppio binario’ (double track), or, more generally, of the Italian application of Stalin’s theory of ‘Socialism in stages’. Rightly, Behan recognises in this policy an ‘attempt to deal with an irresolvable contradiction’:
‘On the one hand the party leadership was keen to assure the middle classes, a central pillar in their strategy of alliances, that their policies would by and large cause them no serious harm. On the other hand there were large numbers of radicalised workers within the factories who were intransigently opposed to both the middle classes and the employers.’ (pp. 139–40)
Indeed, the title of Behan’s book defines what, in the minds of many workers, the years after 1945 would come to represent, a time of reckoning with the capitalists and the longed-for moment of that fateful ‘second stage’ towards the Socialist revolution that, alas, the PCI would do its utmost to avoid. What we find in his book is an explanation as to why a radicalised class, albeit arguably politically ‘immature’ – we would rather say it lacked guidance – and largely confined to the factory milieu, should maintain its trust in the PCI, betrayal after betrayal, blow after blow.
Behan convincingly shows that in many instances this class was not as politically immature as one might think, and that rather than being solely confined to economic demands, some of its actions were clearly political in nature, and were sometimes conducted independently of the PCI leadership. Whilst no one is proposing to substitute class consciousness for party leadership, it is also the case that the PCI totally failed in its task as the vanguard of the class, denying the latter the necessary support and guidance to transcend ‘the factory gates’.
Behan provides a good account of the evolution of the PCI, which by 1943 had moved ‘from a commitment to revolution, to calling for class collaboration with the aim of creating a “progressive democracy”, a move which occurred without large numbers of workers becoming aware of it’ (p. 35). This was bound to cause disagreements once the party began to recruit workers, who often believed that the party had a hidden agenda: many workers thus continued to believe that the PCI was striving for revolution ‘as it had been in the years 1921–25’ (p. 37).
Towards the end of September 1943, the PCI issued a public appeal to the Italian people, in which the way forward was indicated as the conquest of national independence. So, the fight against Fascism and Nazism was to take the form of a struggle for national liberation, with Socialism receding ever further into the distant future. True to Stalin’s stages scheme, in Italy the fight was to proceed through the establishment of a bourgeois democratic regime. A Socialist society would eventually appear, not through class struggle, but by widespread national consensus. Even members of the PCI leadership found this hard to accept, and although this never led to an explicitly organised opposition, it is worth noting that the support for Badoglio, ordered from Moscow and left to Togliatti to sell to his comrades in Italy, actually caused the internal appointment of Mauro Scoccimarro as party leader in 1943, instead of Togliatti. Together with a number of earlier and later episodes, this also shows that, contrary to what many still maintain today, the PCI was at the time far from being a ‘monolith’.
Faced with a swift growth in membership and with the difficulties in controlling spontaneous protests and actions by radicalised workers, which were to continue with the strikes of December 1943 and March 1944, the PCI leadership embarked on an exercise of damage limitation. So, in his Instructions to All Members and to All Party Cadres of 6 June 1944, Togliatti stated: ‘Always remember that the aim of the insurrection is not the imposition of political and Socialist transformations in the Socialist or Communist sense. Its aim is national liberation and the destruction of Fascism.’ The party’s deputy leader, Luigi Longo, was even more soothing at the Milan conference of the Insurrectionary Triumvirate in November 1944, telling his members that they were ‘fighting... not for the dictatorship of the proletariat but for a progressive democracy’ which would not radically upset ‘the principle of exploitative capitalist property relations’ (pp. 79–80).
Strikes broke out in Milan at the start of 1944 independently of the PCI, thus confirming that radicalised workers were increasingly taking the initiative. This part explains why the PCI organised on a much wider scale for the March 1944 strikes. Despite their lack of success, these strikes saw concerted action between workers and partisans, and gave evidence of both political and economic demands. Strikers also asked for greater military support, which was provided by partisan forces, but not by the PCI’s military formations in Milan.
At the beginning of 1945, faced with hopes for the imminent ‘liberation’ and an armed insurrection, the PCI leadership had to act again. So, Pietro Secchia sent a directive to all PCI Federations, disclosing that the party had decided to propose to the Upper Italian National Liberation Committee that partisan formations be transformed into regular units of the Italian army. As this was an internal document, Behan is justified in pointing out that it showed the party’s real approach, and that the PCI was now supporting a discredited state militarily, as well as politically (pp. 121–2).
In the aftermath of the war, the PCI ‘doppiezza’ was used in an attempt, on the one hand, to assure the middle classes of their position and privileges, whilst, on the other, to pacify radicalised workers who expected rather more from the ‘liberation’. The PCI leadership began to appeal to workers to increase their productivity and help rebuild their fatherland. Behan correctly emphasises the fundamental flaw of the PCI’s economic programme. The PCI’s attempts to persuade the middle classes of its good intentions failed, it could offer little to workers, and its ‘doppiezza’ demoralised its members with this wait-and-see attitude, as they were to remain passive whilst waiting for the order to rise (or for Godot, as one could more truthfully say). Over the next three years, the PCI could be described as ‘a weak leadership and a confident rank and file, out of step with the leadership’s line’, constituting ‘an unstable and volatile mixture ... although differences only tended to emerge in brief spontaneous explosions. The use of terms such as “infantile over-confidence” was to become quite common in descriptions of the rank and file, although as time went by the most common term became “lack of consciousness”.’ (p. 170)
After 1945, both the right and the PCI itself placed great emphasis on alleged attempts at provocation, with a view to a possible coup or as an excuse for the government to ban left parties or implement repressive measures. It should be noted that huge amounts of weapons were still held by the partisans and others in the factories and elsewhere, with estimates of up to 30 cannons, about 1,000 machine guns, over 40,000 automatic and non-automatic rifles and revolvers, close to 50,000 grenades, nearly 600 tons of explosives and no less than five million rounds of ammunition! Whilst the Greek civil war, as well as the recent Gladio discovery, lends some justification to these fears, the situation was far from certain. Behan argues that if the PCI had really thought it to be the case, ‘they could probably have organised a clandestine military structure, something which never existed in any real sense’ (p. 291).
Faced with the rank and file’s increased militancy and with the objective economic problems in Italy at the time, the party had to decide where its allegiances lay. It is in this light that we should see the PCI’s renewed denunciations of ‘agent provocateurs’, ‘Trotskyists’, ‘outside agitators’, etc., as well as its rôle in causing the fall of the only government headed by a former partisan commander and leader of the left-wing Action Party, Ferruccio Parri, in November 1945, in favour of a new administration headed by the DC.
Evidence that the Italian working class was perhaps not so politically immature comes with two separate events: the reaction to prefect Troilo’s dismissal in 1947 and the attempted assassination of Togliatti in 1948. Behan devotes an extremely detailed analysis to them, especially to the latter, chronicling each day of the uprising in Milan and other Italian cities. We will have to limit ourselves to the main events here.
By 1947, Troilo was ‘the last “political” prefect, that is, someone appointed by the CLNAI following Liberation, and his selection as prefect [of Milan] clearly reflected his activities as a partisan leader’ (p. 206). Troilo had been dismissed because he refused to repress a general strike that erupted in Milan in response to the sacking of workers. But, as one worker commented, the sacking was no mere disciplinary measure, ‘it was an act against the Resistance’ (p. 206). His removal met immediately with a general strike and the resignation in solidarity of no less than 156 mayors in the region, including the mayor of Milan. Armed workers took over the prefettura building and other strategic places, and factory strikes ensued. Here we clearly see a spontaneous yet concerted action, which surely cannot be defined as limited to economic demands. Whilst PCI local cadres did join the protest, party leaders were busy finalising a compromise, with which Troilo would be temporarily reinstated until a suitable replacement could be found. It was largely thanks to the PCI’s pleadings with workers and partisan protesters that order could be restored.
On 14 July 1948, Togliatti was shot three times outside the parliament in Rome. As soon as the news spread, the entire country came to a halt. Transport was completely paralysed, telephone exchanges were taken over, armed occupations of factories took place, and weapons were retrieved and prepared. All this was entirely spontaneous, as the PCI leadership did not issue any directive, save for a call for the government to resign, and an appeal for all protest to remain within the bounds of legality. However, the prime minister, De Gasperi, refused to resign, so the PCI leadership went into permanent session, to decide what to do and gain time without committing themselves.
Although the situation in Milan at first appeared less eventful than in Genoa, Turin or Venice, it was here that workers proved most reluctant to end the strike. Perhaps uniquely, in Milan the PCI, the Socialist Party and the CGIL union federation set up ‘a kind of united front’ (p22). The masses proclaimed a general strike, and stayed away from the factories. The uprising lasted three days. From Behan’s collected data, workers’ confidence increased throughout this period. However, the PCI and CGIL leaders were working frantically to end the strike, without making any further demands and even giving justifications verging on the ridiculous: an end of the protest was necessary ‘to get more precise information on the situation, and to be able to judge things in greater detail’: the PCI and CGIL soon ‘engineered a return to work with no concessions having been made by the government, despite the fact that the strike movement had taken control from the government temporarily in some Northern cities, without even having any organised strategy or plan.’ (pp. 231–3)
It is true that, in the main, workers supported the idea of an armed insurrection ‘without serious consideration of the precise tactics and strategy necessary’ (p. 234). But, as already noted, their opponent’s resources and strength were far from formidable: ‘during the afternoon and evening of 14 July the state ceased to exercise authority in several towns and cities in Northern Italy ... the very strength of such a spontaneous and uncoordinated movement suggests that a planned and coordinated insurrection stood a good chance of success in many areas’ (p. 235).
Of course, this is not to say that revolution was a concrete possibility for Italy at that juncture. The Allied presence in Italy must be considered, as well as the dominance of Stalin over the international movement. It is also true that the PCI was a mass party with over two million members in 1948, but the political allegiances, let alone consciousness, of many of its members were highly debatable. But, argues Behan, in ‘1917 the Bolsheviks only enjoyed 25 per cent of the votes over the country as a whole ... what gave them greater support was the process of the revolution itself and its demands’ (p. 235). Moreover, the possibility for a left bloc in Italy did seem to exist at the time. Crucially, however, what separated the Bolsheviks from the PCI leadership was the latter’s explicit unwillingness to become the vanguard organisation of the working class, to promote class consciousness and support it in its struggles.
The left has long been divided along two lines: many argue that the balance of forces was so unfavourable, nationally and internationally, that a PCI-led insurrection in Italy was doomed from the start, and would have resulted in the establishment of a right-wing reactionary regime. Behan is more open on this question, and points to the doubtful readiness of the Allies to engage in a civil war in Italy, particularly with a partisan war waging in Greece, and the possibility that the insurrection might spread to France. Some of Behan’s views are validated by Aga-Rossi and Zaslavsky’s findings, but the author is nevertheless correct in advancing a different scenario, one which does not simply limit itself to regard the status quo as the best that could be obtained given the ‘objective conditions’, a term to which the left is sometimes too fond to resort.
In his conclusions, Behan differs from Anfossi, for whom the ‘immature consciousness’ of the Italian proletariat was the determining factor. Even if it might be true that Italian workers ‘never went beyond factory gates’, and Anfossi may be justified in calling for a relationship between party and class consciousness more along the lines of Luxemburg’s ideas on the subject, in the sense that consciousness cannot be created by the party alone, Luxemburg never argued that the class can attain full Communist consciousness without the guidance of its vanguard organisation in an organic interchange. The PCI never wanted to be this, so to expect a mature Italian proletariat at that time displays a serious lack of understanding of revolutionary Marxism.
Finally, with Aga-Rossi and Zaslavsky’s work, we add another piece to the puzzle, and look at the development and decisions of the PCI in the 1930s and 1940s from an international perspective. They were able to consult some of the documents and files recently made available with the opening of the archives of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Soviet Communist Party, and whilst some important evidence remains shrouded in official secrecy, they nevertheless believe that a much more informed opinion can now be formulated of the relationship between Moscow and the leadership of the PCI.
But far from evolving a new analysis from the new information, the authors, as if yearning for the certainties of yore, resort to the tired old nostrums of the Cold War:
‘The intent behind this book has been to explore the as yet barely studied theme of the web between Stalinism and the Italian Communist Party ... On the part of the USSR, this web represents an attempt by the mature Stalinist totalitarianism to expand in a new territory by peaceful means, using as its tool a party capable of mass mobilisation and of permanent opposition to capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Seen on the part of Italian society, this means the affirmation within the newly-born democratic regime of a party seeking to transform Italian society on the basis of the Soviet model.’ (p. 273)
Several episodes are analysed in an attempt to debunk the commonplace idea that, with the exception of the Cominform period of 1947–56, the PCI increasingly asserted its autonomy from Moscow.
The authors claim that the newly-found documentation firmly points to an hitherto unsuspected degree of both cooperation and consultation between Rome and Moscow, and dependency and subordination on the part of the PCI. This is central to the two crucial points that are made in this book. The first concerns an idea, still held in some quarters, that Togliatti was a fairly original leader in his relationship with Moscow. The authors insist that these qualities were mainly a result of Stalin’s willingness to allow the PCI some space, but that any autonomy was strictly circumscribed, and that at every crucial juncture Togliatti and his party capitulated to Stalin’s demands. The second point concerns the PCI’s ‘doppiezza’. Here the authors argue that this is not so much to be understood as the coexistence of a revolutionary and a counter-revolutionary soul within the party, but as a consequence of the PCI’s being both a national party and a member of the international Communist movement. Only in this light can the PCI’s policies be understood. Analysed by itself, as an autonomous scenario, the ‘Italian case’ can never be fully interpreted. We will concentrate here on two major issues: the ‘Salerno switch’ – the explicit orientation of the PCI as a national party – and the events culminating in Togliatti’s attempted assassination in 1948.
The ‘Salerno switch’ followed the Soviet recognition of Badoglio’s government in March 1944, and was initiated by Togliatti on his return from Moscow. Traditionally, historians have been divided on this issue, with many maintaining that this political turn was closely linked with Soviet foreign policy, and others in the official Communist camp seeing it as a move by Togliatti towards greater autonomy from Moscow. In fact, despite Togliatti’s claim to the contrary, the switch was the direct result of a meeting held on 4 March 1944 between Togliatti and Dimitrov in Moscow, before the former departed to Italy. This was not a policy specific to Italy, and as early as 1941 Togliatti, as a Comintern leader, was directing other European Communist parties to unite with various national forces against Nazi Germany, and, after the fall of Fascism in Italy, in his radio broadcasts from Moscow he pointed to the need ‘to define the conditions on which the PCI and other anti-Fascist parties could become part of Badoglio’s government (pp. 58–9).
The real question is why Togliatti and Dimitrov opposed collaboration with Badoglio and the Italian king in early 1944, only to return to supporting them. The anti-Fascist front had been largely favourable to Badoglio, but events after the fall of Fascism led to his being criticised by anti-Fascists. Left to their own devices, the PCI leaders stayed with the anti-Fascist front and supported the formation of an alternative government. Togliatti and Dimitrov sought Stalin’s approval, but he made it clear that Moscow’s original support for Badoglio still stood as Italy had to present a strong and united national front, and so they dutifully lined up behind the general’s government.
Aga-Rossi and Zaslavsky consider that Moscow’s recognition of Badoglio permitted Soviet influence in Italy to grow, as the PCI, like other European Communist parties, would be able to make electoral gains, and take the lead of wide left-wing blocs, thus both creating tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, and keeping in check any ‘premature’ mass rising. They reject the idea that Togliatti’s policies after 1944 aimed simultaneously at resisting the division of Europe into two antagonistic camps and at promoting national unity to create a peaceful, prosperous and independent Italy, and claim that the PCI worked within the governments of national unity in order ‘not to reform capitalist society, but to conquer new positions and achieve power’ (p. 83), in accordance with Soviet strategy. They insist that these aims were fully endorsed by the PCI’s leaders, and were not imposed upon them.
The PCI expected to do well in the 1948 elections. With its allies in the left bloc, victory was guaranteed, and, so long as the Americans did not forcibly exclude the PCI from government, power was just around the corner. Its expectations were unfoundedly high, as the left-wing parties had been excluded from the government in May 1947, the PCI was unable to conclude a trade agreement with Moscow, and De Gasperi, the DC leader, had returned from Washington with the promise of Marshall Aid, which gave his party much credence.
Moscow had responded to the Marshall Plan by accelerating the ‘sovietisation’ of Eastern Europe, and by tightening its grip on the official Communist movement through the newly-formed Cominform. In the new reality of the division of the world into two opposing camps, the European parties were disingenuously condemned for their line of national unity, and they duly adopted a strong anti-American stance and a more militant posture. In October 1947, Togliatti attacked his co-leaders for wavering and lacking in initiative, openly recognising that an insurrection could not be ruled out, although the headstrong Pietro Secchia was told by Stalin that a civil war in Italy would be inappropriate just now. Stalin reprimanded Secchia, but (as Aga-Rossi and Zaslavsky insist), always keen to keep his options open, ordered his appointment as the PCI’s second-in-command.
With the withdrawal of the last of the Allied troops from Italy in December 1947 and the elections looming, tensions rose between the two camps. Truman expected civil war to erupt in Italy, but he opposed any US intervention. At most, military force could be used ‘only in Sicily and Sardinia, and only upon the request of the legal government, taking it for granted that Northern Italy would have remained in Communist hands’ (p. 231). Nevertheless, the PCI began to prepare for armed action to defend its hoped-for electoral victory against US interference. In March 1948, Togliatti secretly met Kostylev, the Soviet ambassador, in Rome, and, whilst presenting a fairly optimistic picture, he argued that resistance in Italy could precipitate ‘a great war’ between the Soviet and Western blocs. Togliatti was told that the PCI could respond militarily if its offices were attacked, but taking power through an armed insurrection was definitely ruled out (p. 234).
Aga-Rossi and Zaslavsky explain this by pointing to the specific situation of Italy within the totality of East-West relations. For them, the fact that the PCI was willing to resort to armed action to enforce an electoral victory invalidates the traditional interpretation of its ‘doppiezza’, and proves that its real roots are to be found in the ‘profound contrast between the necessity to present itself as a national party in defence of the interests of wide strata of Italian society, and its rôle as an integral part of the international Communist movement dominated by the USSR’ (p. 236).
Aga-Rossi and Zaslavsky are correct to cast aspersions upon the Togliatti myth, and to emphasise his subordination to Moscow. But their methodology is wrong. Togliatti, along with Thorez, Pollitt and the rest, were committed to collaborating with non-Stalinist forces in a quest for national reconstruction because Stalin did not want their parties to seize power. Stalin wanted influence in Italy, not revolution. Stalin’s theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’ led to domestic patriotism growing in Stalinist parties, and this could lead them to adapt too much for Stalin’s liking to non-Stalinist forces at home. There would necessarily be tension between Togliatti’s allegiance to Moscow and his activities as an Italian politician. The shift of the official Communist movement to a more radical stance after 1947 was not a return to a long-lost revolutionary standpoint, but an attempt by Moscow to restrict the influence of the USA in world and especially European politics.
The study of Italy during this crucial period is bound to continue. As it is, the books by Anfossi, Guerriero and Rondinelli and Behan are worthy contributions to the debate. Aga-Rossi and Zaslavsky’s offering, however, belongs to an historiographical school that has long been discredited, and this greatly reduces its value for the historian.
Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011