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Chanie Rosenberg

The cry of unity

(April 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 174, April 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A year after the publication of Ignazio Silone’s Fontamara in 1933 it became a bestseller in 14 countries, moving many a reader to become an active revolutionary. Its subsequent virtual disappearance has been a tragic loss, and its republication by Redwords should be heartily celebrated.

Fontamara is the tale of a small village in Southern Italy under the heel of Mussolini’s fascism in the 1920s. It starts with the centuries old unchanging cycle of the peasants’ lives – grinding poverty, perpetual double crossing by their urban exploiters, breadline survival. It leads on to the rapid changes wrought through the tightening of the screws of economic and political exploitation by the victorious new breed of super-exploiters, who are backed at every stage with new laws and new taxes levied by the fascist government.

The two souls of the peasant vie with each other to find a way out. One is to fight for salvation for your own self and family against the other peasant families suffering the same plight. The other is to unite and fight together against the exploiters for the benefit of all.

Fontamara traces the transition from the one to the other brilliantly, as the pressure on the peasants becomes intolerable. In fact, that is the whole purpose of the book.

The chief capitalist of the area – the mayor – steals the water that irrigated the peasants’ tiny plots by diverting the stream from the village to his own lands. The women march to town to protest to the mayor and extract a promise of three quarters of the water for the mayor and three quarters of the rest for Fontamara. They fail to comprehend the arithmetical trick but go home. When the waters are actually divided and the peasants see that they have been given practically no water at all there is uproar.

A notable called the People’s Friend suggests that as the division is perfectly legal it should remain in force, but for a fixed term. ‘50 years,’ says the mayor to a howl of protest from the peasants. After further quarrels the People’s Friend suggests ten lustres, which he obligingly gets the mayor to agree to. Again, no one knows what a lustrum is (it is actually five years). There is no way the peasants can agree to the theft of their water as their food supply depends on it – the unirrigated land pays the debts and taxes. The peasants’ dilemma is embodied in a landless peasant, Berardo, who, being bolder than the rest, they look up to as their leader. Berardo was suspected of being behind the burning down of the mayor’s fence enclosing stolen common grazing ground and other acts of arson and sabotage. But he falls in love and gives up his care for the peasants’ interests, going to town to earn money, buy a plot and marry.

However, events in the town, following a police report on his previous conduct as the ‘worst possible’, prevent him getting a job and eventually land him in prison, together with a revolutionary he meets. A day and night of fervid discussion in prison with the revolutionary bring him back to the revolutionary path, but this time not to the saboteur’s cry of ‘fire’ but to the socialist’s cry of ‘unity’. To secure the revolutionary’s freedom Berardo takes the blame for his illegal literature and is tortured.

Their intensified persecution, and what happened to Berardo, rapidly turn the peasants from a quarrelsome collection of ‘each against all’ into a communal group of revolutionaries. In a nearby village the peasants rise up against their exploiters. In Fontamara they unite to produce a revolutionary paper which they distribute in surrounding villages.

A bare outline of the plot of the book cannot begin to give a flavour of its passion, its bitter humour, its great artistry.

Ignazio Silone was born in 1900 and brought up in the small town of Pescina, the son of a small landowner and weaver. He was a revolutionary from an early age, a member of the Peasant League of Pescina in 1917 during the First World War. He was tried on a charge of instigating a peasant anti-war revolt, and his experience put him in contact with socialists.

A year later Silone became secretary of the Socialist Youth of Rome. He continued moving leftwards and in 1921 became a founding member of the Communist Party. He was forced to leave Italy after Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, but returned in 1925 to engage in illegal work. He spent a number of brief periods in prison.

There could not be a more fitting background for the production of a great novel of political propaganda against fascism. Silone, the peasant son, sees the peasants as they really are, without sentimentality, without embellishment, warts and all. Silone the Marxist revolutionary knows how to generalise the peasants’ experience, to see and chart the changes in their consciousness from atomised individuals, floundering indignantly but hopelessly under the battering of fascism, into a body taking control of their collective fate. He weaves the development and fate of the ‘hero’ into the story illustrating vividly the role of the individual in history.

Ignazio Silone completed Fontamara in 1930. In the same year he left the Communist Party, unable the accept the actions of the Comintern over the Chinese Revolution in 1927 – in particular its condemnation of Trotsky’s intervention. But Silone subsequently moved to the right. He repudiated Marxism, although he remained a right wing socialist. This political shift affected his later output, reducing both his passionate attack on the capitalist system and the clarity of his political insights.

Fontamara is the jewel of Silone’s writings. It is one of the first books every socialist should read today.

For your free copy of Fontamara – published by Redwords this month price £6.50 – turn to our offer on page 35.

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