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Irving Howe

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Bread and Wine

(2 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 35, 2 September 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Bread and Wine,
by Ignazio Silone
Penguin Books. 25 cents

< cl fst>Ignazio Silone, the author of this book, was at one time active in the underground Italian Communist movement. In the early thirties he wrote a splendid novel, Fontamara, which gave a vivid picture of the life of the peasants under Italian fascism and of their struggle against it. Shortly afterward Silone broke with the Stalinized Italian Communist Party, but remained a revolutionary. He continued to write stories, essays and novels, of which Bread and Wine is his most characteristic.

Bread and Wine is a novel immersed in the atmosphere of defeat. Its hero, Pietro Spina, is a professional revolutionist of legendary stature who returns to Italy to do underground work shortly before Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. He comes as a convinced Marxist, but his experiences with the peasantry of his native area shake his convictions and stimulate him to develop new ideas.

Spina becomes convinced that propaganda is useless as a means to prepare the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship. People have been misled too long 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. Under fascism, humanity has become so corrupted, so cynical and hopeless – Spina concludes – that it is useless to speak of programs or of parties. One cannot organize a revolutionary party in a town where no one is certain his neighbor will not betray him for so much as cracking a joke about the head of the state.

These are the conclusions Spina comes to as a result of his life among the peasants. They are concerned merely with existence, with the cycle of rural life; they view the evils of government as natural and unavoidable plagues comparable to drought or flood.

Spina visits the underground workers’ groups in Rome, but there too he finds no hope. These groups are isolated; their members go through the motions of conspiratorial work but they have lost their grasp on the essentials of life; they are victims of their helplessness.

What, then, is to be done? Spina concludes that it is necessary to show people once more how to live. One must show them that it is still possible to live decently and honestly; that friendship can be cultivated for its own sake.

Spina adopts as his guiding principle the ethical ideal of primitive Christianity, “a Christianity denuded of all religion and all church control.” The task is not to propagandize or organize parties, but to live as revolutionary saints. ‘‘No word,” writes Silone, “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.”

These ideas are, of course, not in agreement with those which revolutionary Marxists hold. Saintliness, a quality which the debased society in which we live makes impossible for most men, cannot be a substitute for the united action of those who suffer most under capitalism and are in the best position to eradicate it, that is, the workers.

But it would be wrong to think of this book only in terms of the ideas its author develops. He writes with a wonderful sense for the concrete, a feeling for the patterns of human life which become defined in the experiences of Spina in his search for a new way of life. Silone also has at his command a rich and gentle humor which illuminates and makes even more poignant the tragedy of life under fascism.

Bread and Wine is a masterful work of art: it is a warm picture of the life of the Italian peasantry; it is a moving account of the inner struggles of the doubting revolutionary returned from exile; it is dramatic in action and brilliant in its internal clash of ideas. As with all great novels, whatever their explicitly formulated ideas, it is a deep and penetrating depiction of man’s fate, his suffering and triumphs; and it is an affirmation of his ability to struggle against his enslavement and attain thereby the dignity and stature of the whole man.

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