Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4


The Anvil and the Hammer

Eros Francescangeli
L’incudine e il Martello. Aspetti pubblici e privati del trockismo italiano tra antifascismo e antistalinismo (1929–1939)
Morlacchi Editore, Perugia 2005

This is a book about a small number of Italian men and women who stood against the tide, placing themselves between the anvil of fascist secret agents who probably wanted to kill them, and the hammer of Stalinists who often wanted to do the same. (The title translates as: ‘The Hammer and the Anvil. Public and private aspects of Italian Trotskyism between anti-fascism and anti-Stalinism’.)

So it is a book about a tiny number of Italian Trotskyists living in exile in France seventy years ago. What can it offer to readers of Revolutionary History? Not that much I fear – this is not to criticise the analysis and research of the author, merely the subject matter he has chosen to deal with.

If they had become bigger a force following the main events described, then the book would carry more weight. Having said that, the Italian historiographical tradition needs to redress the balance: Trotskyism has been much maligned on the left due to the previous dominance of Stalinism and the strength of autonomism today – where Trotskyism came from certainly needs to be explained.

As with his previous book on the Arditi del popolo [see review in previous issue of Revolutionary History], this book is the result of intensive work in left-wing and state archives.

Although Francescangeli’s story really begins with the Stalinist turn to ‘social fascism’ of 1929–30, the Italian Communist Party had intrinsic qualities that led it towards sectarian isolation. At the Fifth congress of the International in July 1924 party leader Amadeo Bordiga declared, in typical fashion: ‘we cannot wait that the two methods of bourgeois offensive to create a synthesis, and that together social democrats and fascists lead a violent offensive against the revolutionary movement’. (p. 24)

The Italian delegation concurred, which is not particularly surprising. The PCI leadership was Bordighist, by and large, or had been until recently. So the sectarian ultra-left rejection of socialists and others therefore went unchallenged. This feeling was very much part of the party’s DNA for many years.

However this ultra-left lunacy would take on a more systematic form four years later, with the notions of ‘class against class’ and ‘social-fascism’ launched at the Sixth Congress of the International in July 1928, a meeting that heralded the move into its ‘third period’.

Apparently there was a ‘radicalisation of the masses’ – but above all social democracy had become the main enemy. In many ways, the closer a political force was ideologically, the more it had to be mistrusted and fought.

This virulent denunciation of any perceived political heresy meant ideological purging within individual communist parties. The first bomb was dropped at a meeting of the Third International executive committee in December 1928, when Stalin attacked the PCI representative, Angelo Tasca, and Jules Humbert-Droz for ‘opportunism’. Tasca in particular, Stalin said, was like ‘those lawyers in the provinces who try to prove that black is white and white is black’. (p. 42)

The problem for Italian communists was now this: what position to take in the face of Stalin’s attack? They criticised Tasca.

But Tasca wasn’t for backing down. The following month he wrote to Palmiro Togliatti, who was emerging as party leader: ‘The entire situation rotates around Stalin. The International doesn’t exist; the USSR CP doesn’t exist; Stalin is the “lord and master” who moves everything. […] With this policy and methods Stalin is advance guard of the counter-revolution; he is the liquidator of the spirit of October.’ (p. 43)

This was very much Trotsky’s view, for a while, but Tasca was still the Italians’ man in Moscow, and was on the International’s executive committee. For other Italian communist leaders, agreeing with Tasca meant attacking Stalin and Moscow – and by implication agreeing with Trotsky. But if they didn’t agree with him that had to take their first major Stalinist step – expel him. The leadership first agreed to remove Tasca from the CC, and to demand a public retraction of his views.

In a parallel with what had happened earlier in Russia with many of Stalin’s allies in the mid-1920s, in many respects it was Pietro Tresso who led the charge against Tasca – a man who would later pay the ultimate price.

Tasca was deemed guilty of denying the ‘fascistisation of social democracy’. In the leadership meeting which decided his expulsion, which Tasca attended, Togliatti chillingly argued: ‘The working class can only move forward by passing over the body of social democracy. […] Just as we must pass over the body of social democracy, in the same way we must pass over the body of opportunists’. (p. 63) The political bureau (a smaller organ, higher than the CC) voted to expel Tasca because he refused to ‘recant’.

The vote was unanimous. Once again, in the near future there were to be echoes of the fate suffered by Stalin’s allies. Three of the political bureau who voted for expulsion (Leonetti, Ravazzoli and Tresso), created the precedent for their own expulsion as ‘the Three’ in little more than a year.

Indeed at the core of the book is the huge bloodletting within the party’s political bureau – during 1929–31 five of its eight members would be expelled: Alfonso Leonetti, Paolo Ravazzoli, Ignazio Silone, Angelo Tasca and Pietro Tresso. (Although Francescangeli does debate the case of Ignazio Silone, due to both his own political evolution and his torment at being a police informer, his expulsion was quite a different political event.)

The next crisis came with a meeting of the Italian leadership in September 1929, in which it was proposed to set up an ‘internal headquarters’ by sending leaders back into Italy – given that a revolution was apparently more or less imminent. Perhaps it was also justifiable self-interest which led Paolo Ravazzoli to counter: ‘I’m more than willing to accept this if it can be shown that the results which could derive from it would make it worthwhile. Yet you can’t obtain many results when you’d just be speaking to three or four comrades.’ (p. 60)

The Stalinist machine was now in full flight: two months later another report argued, given that the revolutionary situation was apparently so ripe, for the removal of the entire organisation and leadership from France to Italy in a matter of weeks.

The reality was that over a thousand communist party members were in Italian jails, including Antonio Gramsci. Pietro Tresso wrote a counter-proposal, which also included spelling out reality: ‘In these three years of special laws our Federations and branches have been swept away three, four or five times.’ (pp. 70–1) In a further twist, he added that the real party leadership – which had been formed in years of struggle – was now in jail.

After Ravazzoli and Tresso came Alfonso Leonetti, the last in the group which became known as ‘the Three’: ‘where is the mass movement today?’ (p. 75) Not only were the Three guilty of pessimism – their worst heresy was expressing outright dissent.

In the leadership meeting called to expel them, Tresso voiced an excellent put-down of the wily Togliatti, also present at the meeting: ‘I believe that he has always been absolutely determined in his oscillating.’ (p. 86)

Yet the weakness in the tale recounted by Franscescangeli is what happened next. When ‘the Three’ were expelled their perspective was one of ‘reforming’ the PCI: this made it difficult to attract activists to their cause, also because they didn’t even have a newspaper for nearly a year after their expulsion, and when it did start it had a print run of just 300. They claimed the PCI had 2,500 members, but also admitted that it was in a terrible state, given the nature of fascism. All their contacts were with Italians living in France. Furthermore they also had an image problem, having voted for both Bordiga’s and Tasca’s expulsion, and had signed up to criticise Silone.

One very stark factor was the practical meaning for Italian communists to be expelled from the Italian Communist Party in France during the 1930s. It meant that the party you had previously built now violently attacked you. It was common for the Stalinist press in France to name Trotskyists publicly, thus leaving illegal Italian immigrants liable to arrest and even deportation back to Italy. The false documents activists carried were provided by the PCI, who would no longer help them on their expulsion.

And if you became a Trotskyist in fascist Italy the party would automatically attack you, accuse you of being in league with fascists – in essence you ran even greater risk of being picked up by the police because of all the fuss that was made about you. And if you ended up in jail, Stalinists would often physically attack you.

A different horizon opened up after 1933, to some degree. The failure of the German left to seriously oppose Hitler’s rise to power had shown Trotsky that the Third International could not be saved – a notion that caused huge instability among small groups.

The move towards ‘entryism’ into mass organisations which followed soon after was also a wasted opportunity. The activities recounted by Francescangeli list meeting after meeting, definition after definition, denunciation after denunciation – there is very little discussion about changing events in the real world. When all Italian Trotskyists joined the French Socialist Party, Angelo Tasca haughtily wrote of them: ‘Their spirit is sectarian and loud-mouthed. All they deal in is high politics, with composite motions, extracts from resolutions, etc.’ (p. 199) The first General Council of the French SFIO proved him right: Tresso and another Italian presented their own separate motions, which gained one vote each – their own.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia Tresso’s group wrote a document demanding ‘strikes, street demonstrations, armed attacks on town halls, fascist offices and bosses’ clubs’. (p. 204) It was just wishful thinking: not only did none of this happen, Italian Trotskyists in exile had no hope of influencing events. These individuals were subject to the same desperation which had led Trotksy to proclaim the Fourth International – the experience of living through epoch-making events without being able to influence them.

One of the more positive discoveries of Francescangeli’s research is the discovery of close relations between these Trotskyists and Justice and Liberty – a radical left grouping led by Carlo Rosselli. Up until now, most Trotskyists had denied these links because Justice and Liberty was considered too moderate. Similarly it had been denied by many scholars of Justice and Liberty, anxious to present it in as moderate as light as possible – yet the links were so close in some cases that joint membership of both organisations was not uncommon.

Although the organisation’s politics were perhaps too idealistic, the practical nature of their collaboration was again found wanting. In three years of intense discussions, just one edition of a newspaper was the result. Yet the attraction was real – Paolo Ravazzoli ended up joining the organisation.

Francescangeli refreshingly criticises Trotsky, and points out his sectarian attitude towards Justice and Liberty leader Carlo Rosselli, who was told by Trotsky when they met in spring 1934: ‘I know you … We got rid of all you counter-revolutionaries like you in Russia’. (p. 13)

Yet both men would be murdered by counter-revolutionaries – Trotsky by a Stalinist agent in 1940, and Rosselli by French fascists in 1937.

Stalinists behaved appallingly towards these small band of Trotskyists – for example Alfonso Leonetti was severely beaten up in 1933, and in all probability the people who murdered Pietro Tresso in 1943 were Stalinist agents. The historical facts show that more Italian communists died at Stalinist hands than through fascist acts during the 1930s. Other attacks were more personal – ‘the Three’ were also accused of ‘socialising’ the personal relationships between their partners.

For all these reasons, Italian Trotskyism was very weak at its birth, suffering all the bad habits of exile politics. And by 1945 the communist party’s activity in the anti-fascist Resistance had created a mass party which would soon have a million and a half members. Such was the weakness of Italian Trotskyism compared to other European countries that the first edition of The Transitional Program was only published in Italian in 1972.

Francescangeli illustrates this forgotten page of the Italian left well. The problem is that these brave individuals left very little behind them.

Tom Behan

Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011