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R. Fahan

Silone on Marxism and Christianity

A Literary Review

(September 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 8, September 1942, pp. 246–248.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When a novel is as completely concerned with political problems, as all of Silone’s are, the critic faces the alternatives: Is this book to be evaluated as a work of art or as a draft program for a political party? Is it to be judged by the pleasure and stimulation afforded the reader or is it to be analyzed as a political document?

It is easy to say that a work of art deserves consideration on the basis of its intrinsic merits, to acknowledge Trotsky’s formula that “art functions according to laws of its own.” But the application of this formula is a rather more difficult task. For instance, the question immediately arises: To what extent do the faulty politics of the writer result in a deterioration of his work’s literary merit?

Nor are these difficulties lessened when one remembers that in recent years many novels have read like political programs, and many political programs like novels.

The above truistic remarks are prefixed to this review because of a fear that The Seed Beneath the Snow [1] is likely to be cavalierly dismissed by radicals as merely another instance of intellectual backsliding reflecting Silone’s retrogression from Marxism to a strange variety of primitive, revolutionary Christianity. Yet such an attitude, despite its political good intentions, would result in a failure to appreciate a literary masterpiece of our times.

The reader will recall that there has been a certain developmental line observable in Silone’s two previous novels. Fontamara is an epic of mass awakening and struggle against the scourge of Italian fascism. It is objective and impersonal to the point of adopting the characteristics of a folk tale; it breathes with fire, hope and confidence. This is the Silone, who, while no longer an adherent of the Third International, is still a revolutionary Marxist. The political pivot of Fontamara is the revolutionary section of the urban proletariat even though its main characters are peasants: it is the peasant who goes to the city, there to be tinged for the first time by revolutionary ideas, and who returns to the countryside to plant those ideas among his fellows.

Silone in His Earlier Works

In Bread and Wine we meet a vastly different Silone. He has lost his easy optimism; defeat is complete; the period of struggle is at an end; there is only despair, resignation and obeisance to authority. The novel’s protagonist, Pietro Spina, who largely reflects the opinions of his creator, is a revolutionary leader returned from exile to the peasant areas of the Abruzzi in order to re-establish ties with his people and test his theories in the experiences of actual life. Bread and Wine is largely a book of dialogue, of sparkling, brilliant dialectical interplay – more mature and provocative than Fontamara, though less dramatic – tracing the ideological transformation of Spina, the Marxist, into Spina, the revolutionary Christian saint.

At the end of Bread and Wine (in the by-now classic dialogue with his old teacher, Don Benedetto) Spina concludes that his old life has been barren, chained to an exiled apparatus which failed to understand those workers and peasants whose liberation it claimed as its end. Spina adopts as his guiding principle the ethical ideal of primitive Christianity, “a Christianity denuded of all religion and all church control.” He now refuses to recognize any duality between means and ends; the only way to achieve the good life is to live it and thereby inspire others to live it. The task is not to propagandize, not to organize parties, not to preach, but to live as saints, revolutionary saints.

“No word and no gesture can be more persuasive than the life and, if necessary, the death of a man who strives to be free, loyal, just, sincere, disinterested. A man who shows what a man can be.”

It is on this note that Bread and Wine closes. And it is to show the actual living-out of the doctrine which Bread and Wine only stated, that The Seed Beneath the Snow is written. It is even slower in pace than Bread and Wine; it contains none of the fascinating dialectics of political and intellectual debate which made Bread and Wine such a brilliant novel.

In a way, it returns to the objective method of Fontamara. Just as Fontamara depicted the living-out of one approach to life, so does The Seed Beneath the Snow depict another approach – with Bread and Wine as the intermediary explanation of why Silone abandoned the first approach for the second. The trilogy is now complete – a masterwork of literature.

As everyone knows, Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment can be read merely as a detective story. It can also be read on at least one other plane as well – as a profound exposition of Dostoievsky’s views on morality and human conduct. So, too, can The Seed Beneath the Snow be read merely as a realistic novel of peasant life in fascist Italy or as that and as an exposition of Silone’s views on how to meet the problems of contemporary society. It is with extraordinary skill that Silone weaves and interweaves these two motifs – not conflicting but co-extant and even complementary.

The Plane of the New Book

On one plane, The Seed Beneath the Snow is a realistic novel of the life of a people. It is therefore more illogical, more contradictory, more twisted than Bread and Wine; not because of any perversity or light-mindedness of the author, but rather because of its faithful adherence to life.

Nothing – not even Silone’s previous books – can compare with The Seed Beneath the Snow for a picture of the concrete effects of fascist society on daily life. It concerns itself not with the more sensational and crude horrors of fascism, but rather with showing how fascist society corrodes and destroys the most elementary relationships and the most basic values of life. Fascism is hateful not merely because of its rubber hose, its concentration camps, its castor oil; but also because it makes each man suspicious of his neighbor, because it exalts ignorance and stupidity into a system, because it makes of its subjects ever-fearful beasts instead of men. Some of the most remarkable sections of the book portray the life of the town petty bourgeoisie and office holders: their spiritual corruption (”What has that to do with it,” queries the local judge when asked by a friend if he sincerely meant his lyrical panegyric of fascist “national mysticism”!); the constant toadying to superior authority; the solemn development of the most arrant nonsense into a system of logical absurdities (Does the state exist for man? No, man exists for the state. Does the pharmacy exist for the sick? No, the sick exist for the pharmacy. Does the handkerchief exist for the nose? Of course not, the nose exists for the handkerchief.)

Silone blends violent realism with the broadest and most scathing satire. All the rotten parts of fascist society – and by inference, all of contemporary society as well – are shown in all their ugliness, filth, corrosion. The only person who retains a degree of freedom is the much-envied village idiot, who is certified by the state as being a simpleton and therefore has the right to tell the truth about it!

But to read this book merely in this light would constitute an act of irresponsibility for the serious reader. It is at least as necessary to consider the idea as the picture, even though we find far more to quarrel with in the former.

A New Spina Returns

The plot of The Seed Beneath the Snow is deceptively simple. Spina returns to the town of his birth, spiritually reinforced by his new life-creed; he effects a reconciliation with his old grandmother, finding that her strong, unbending and literal Christianity coincides with his humanistic creed with regard to problems of practical morality; he convinces her of the moral loss involved in gaining a pardon from the state at the price of a humiliating “admission of guilt”; he spends his time now, not by wondering about the validity of Marxism, which he has already abandoned, but rather in developing his friendships with a rural rebel, Simone the Polecat, and a pathetic deaf mute, Infante. He gradually gains the confidence of many of the peasants, never by talking politics, but rather by stimulating them into decent, honest and fearless friendships, the very existence of which comes to represent a threat to the local authorities; and finally, he sacrifices himself for the deaf mute Infante as a last gesture of humility. And that is all.

Silone is convinced that the use of propaganda and agitation in fascist Italy are completely useless as a means of overthrowing the dictatorship. People have been misled too long and too often by words and slogans; they automatically distrust and disbelieve all phrases. It is useless, again, to point out the stupidities and lies of the official propaganda because nobody believes that either, least of all the government propagandists themselves. Humanity has become so utterly corrupted, so cynical and hopeless, that it is useless to speak of programs, of platforms, of parties. One cannot organize a revolutionary party in a town where no one is certain that his neighbor will not betray him for so much as making a joke about the head of the state.

It is necessary to show the people once more how to live. One must show them that it is still possible to live honestly, decently; that friendships can be cultivated for their own sake and not as the means toward getting a favor from the local fascist secretary; it is necessary to teach them the meaning, not by words but by deeds, of those most elementary human decencies which have, until now, been taken more or less for granted. Then, and only then, can the régime of Etcetera Etcetera be wiped out. When people have regained their respect for themselves and others as worthy human beings, when they understand the meaning of trust and friendship – fascism is doomed.

Spina Speaks for Silone

And that is the significance of the plot. Spina’s friendship and sacrifice for Infante is the symbol of the book: the symbol of the revolutionary saint bringing back to life the most lowly of the oppressed (Infante was even exploited by the poorest peasant, ate potato peels and lived in a cave with a donkey); teaching him the simplest words, the basis for human communication; giving him dignity and joy; and finally making the supreme sacrifice in his behalf. Infante is the symbol of the Italian people degraded to muteness and deafness; his resurrection is the triumph of the intellectual, Spina.

“To our newly discovered friends,” says Spina, “we should not bring theories but only our friendship. What better gift can we offer them? Nor must we indulge in any more distrust than is strictly necessary; to take it for granted that a man is a coward means to make him into one, to cover him with shame. If our friends are demoralized by their long isolation, we must seek to reawaken their pride and self-esteem and they’ll see to the rest. The main thing is to watch out that we don’t fall into rhetoric and bluff.”

And again:

“An old, faithful and disinterested friendship is in itself a total negation of the relationships in vogue today, just as life is a negation of death.”

The perceptive reader immediately asks: Is this theory intended merely for the unique situation in Italy today, or is it Silone’s “program” for contemporary society as a whole? Is it based merely on a conjectural situation or does it have more basic roots and premises?

Though there is no explicit answer to this question in The Seed Beneath the Snow, we are forced to conclude that the latter is the case. Silone has relapsed into a variety of what he seems to think is primitive Christianity, an abstraction of the absolutist moral creed of the love-concept of parts of the New Testament, with which is mingled elements of the philosophical idealist theory, held by Christians and Confucians alike, that the pre-condition for social liberation is individual ethical regeneration. Together with this, there is Silone’s profound disillusionment with Marxian politics, resulting from his identification of Stalinism with Marxism. (In this respect alone he is akin to the contemporary intellectuals.) Silone’s disillusionment does not, however, take the form of a surrender to the powers that be; there is no evidence that he has become a hawker for bourgeois democracy, that he has sold his soul for another Versailles Treaty. For, whatever one’s opinion of his new creed, it is necessary to emphasize that” if he has ceased to be a social revolutionary, he has remained an implacable rebel against contemporary society – more of a rebel, it needs be noted, than many professing to be Marxists. He has not made his peace with Mammon; he accepts no lesser evil. Silone’s disillusionment takes, on the contrary, the form of absolutist suspicion of the party. He is obsessed with the dangers of organization, the inevitable bureaucracy of the intellectuals which he believes parties produce.

Fears of Bureaucracy, a Universal Phenomenon

But there remains a residue of a certain revolutionary practicality in Silone’s outlook. When Spina begins to “organize” the peasants on the basis of friendship, he displays much of the shrewd method which Silone’s newly revolutionized leader did in Fontamara. On a more general plane, it may be admitted that much of what Silone says about approaching the Italian peasantry at present is undoubtedly true. Especially in a situation where we find a lone, isolated revolutionist in a peasant area who is not in contact with any revolutionary party (perhaps because none exists), would he not, if he had some sense, act similarly to Spina in many practical aspects? He might not indulge in so much rhetoric, which the actual peasants of Italy, unlike Silone’s peasants, would appreciate very little, but he would undoubtedly try to gain their respect as a human being, and their confidence. He would try to prove himself, to demonstrate in actual practice his worth as a friend, a confidant, a leader.

“Ah,” Silone might now say, “here is where we part roads. For you, gaining the friendship and confidence of the people is merely a means toward an end, a means toward enrolling them under your political banner. While I seek their friendship as an end in itself; I have no ulterior motives.”

We are now at the crux of the argument. We have the right to ask: Once you, Silone, and your fellow saints, whom you presumably wish to spring up in other parts of Italy, have gained the friendship of the peasants, what will you do then? Is it really merely enough to exist as martyrs, is it really true that your very existence would then obliterate fascism? Would you not yourself tend to organize a party, a peculiar kind of party, but a party nonetheless? Would you not contact the saint, with his flock of peasants, in the adjacent towns? In a word, wouldn’t you yourself organize? And once organized, what guarantee – of the kind you ask of the Marxists – would there then be that your morality would not become party (or church or whatever else you would call your organization) morality? What about your organization would guarantee the non-existence of bureaucracy and dishonesty and deceit, unlike a Marxian party? Would it be the fact that your organization or sect would be based on love, on friendship and not on dialectical absorption with the seizure of power? But is it not possible for a sect based on love and friendship – especially when one considers its temptation for Messianism – to develop a bureaucracy at least as vile as certain “Marxist” parties have developed? As witness, the greatest of all bureaucracies in human history: the Christian Church, which, according to your belief, started with a creed similar to your present one!

The Inadequacy of “New” Piety

We are forced to come to the conclusion: the only way to guarantee the non-existence of a bureaucracy is to refrain from organization; the refusal to organize together with one’s fellow men can mean only either constant subservience to the powers that be. or isolated, futile acts of individual heroism. And is that not what Spina comes to at the end of this book? True, Silone says, but his act will be remembered and revered by the peasants; it will inspire them to ... to what?

This, then, is Silone’s dilemma: the dilemma of defeat. Let it be remembered that Silone argued not against certain kinds of parties, certain features of parties – but as against parties per se. And that, we believe, cannot reach any other conclusion than the one we have outlined above.

How, then, was it possible for Christianity to retain such a hold on millions of people with the creed of love and friendship when it never organized to give them concrete and real meaning. The answer to this question will help us explain Silone’s other great error: his misunderstanding of the nature of Christianity. When, in its inception, Christianity, as the creed of a revolutionary sect, had a certain specific, historical r61e, which helped produce its moral creed, which in turn served as its ideological banner – then Christianity organized into a tight, intolerant, bureaucratic and homogeneous force.

It did not believe that merely to live righteously was enough to cast evil out of the world; it knew that evil was personified in corporeal forms and social forces and went out to do battle against them. When, afterward, Christianity degenerated into a solace for existent misery and a handmaiden of reactionary social orders, it maintained its hold, first, by its support from the social system it helped sustain, and second, by its opiatic creed of salvation in an after-life. It doped men to live “righteous” lives not, primarily, as a means of bringing heaven to earth, but as a means of getting into heaven. And those rare thinkers who took the premises of Christianity seriously found it necessary, as does Silone, to break from the church and rebel in one way or another.

In Search of the Non-Existent

Thus we see that Silone’s admiration for primitive Christianity is based on a complete misunderstanding of its real character and subsequent development. Christianity never proposed passivity – until it became the organ of the status quo. Silone has attempted to reconcile the rebelliousness of primitive Christianity with the passivity of later Christianity – and they do not blend.

Baldly stated and abstracted from its context in the novel, Silone’s ideological creed does not appear very attractive to the radical reader. What does remain is a man of great sincerity and honesty, a man who in a period of intellectual surrender remains an uncompromising rebel and a man (most important of all) who is one of few genuinely great writers of our time; The Seed Beneath the Snow, we do not hesitate to say, is his most mature and finest novel to date. Let it be remembered that two of the world’s literary masterpieces, Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s War and Peace, are expositions of reactionary ideologies. That does not prevent any sensible person from reading them again and again.

For our part, we hope that Silone will yet be stimulated to new revolutionary consciousness by the events which undoubtedly lie ahead. We see the future, not in Spina’s resignation and sacrifice, but in the unity and joint struggle of Romeo, the revolutionary worker of Bread and Wine, and Simone, the rebel peasant of The Seed Beneath the Snow. That Silone has brought them to the pages of literature is in itself cause for gratitude and rejoicing.


1. The Seed Beneath the Snow, by Ignazio Silone. Harper & Brothers, New York: $2.75; 360 pp.

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