Bennett D Carpenter: One review of The Tailor of Ulm

  In his extremely critical review of Jodi Dean's The Communist Horizon, Jeffrey Isaac opens with a gesture towards The Tailor of Ulm, Lucio Magri's memoir-cum-history of the Italian Communist Party. In contrast to Dean's "dismissive and disparaging polemic," Isaac praises Magri's "profound reckoning with historical experience" as a "model of honest recollection and reflection." In effect, he seems to be playing a Left-liberal version of good cop/bad cop: "good" communists are mournful and apologetic, "bad" communists polemical and unrepentant. This dichotomy is born out in his tone: his fretful-sounding Magri "worries" and "bemoans"; meanwhile Dean "challenges," "endorses" and "insists." Readers, like myself, more sympathetic to Dean's unabashed communism might conclude that Magri's book is just one more in a line of public recantations from remorseful ex-communists, with little or nothing to offer to the contemporary Left.

This would be unfortunate, because The Tailor of Ulm is one of the most engaging, insightful and unrepentant histories of communism that I have ever read.

As others have noted, the English translation of Magri's subtitle is misleading: it is not, as Verso would have it, the story of "Communism in the Twentieth Century." The original Italian (Una possibile storia del PCI) does better, for this is indeed a "possible history" of the Italian Communist Party, from its inception to its precipitous demise. In fairness to Verso, Magri does provide a succinct (and, in my opinion, excellent) evaluation of the global communist movement, and a reader unfamiliar with the shifting policies of the Kremlin, the details of the Sino-Soviet split, or the configuration of Tito's Yugoslavia could learn a great deal from these pages. But Magri's main focus is on the triumphs and the trials of the PCI.

The Italian Communist Party has been burdened with an unfortunate reputation—viewed by many liberals as irredeemably "Stalinist," by Stalinists as irredeemably "reformist," and by the autonomists as both.1 Indeed, it is to the last that we owe our stock stereotype of the PCI as hopelessly outdated and simultaneously opportunistic—a vision which, admittedly, bears some resemblance to the PCI's policy of "historic compromise" in the 1970s, although one might retort that a party is never static and though one wishes the autonomists could match their ruthless critique of actually-existing communism with an even roughly comparable degree of self-criticism. (The "historic compromise" was, it seems to me, based on an overly pessimistic reading of the situation; autonomist "politics"—such as these were—on an overly optimistic one.) While it seems unwise to leave history to the victors, a dearth of English-language materials has thus far left the story of the PCI in the hands of Negri and friends;2 Magri's memoir thus serves as a welcome corrective.

And it is a bracing one: at once nuanced and wide-ranging, avowedly partisan yet admirably judicious, unsparing in both criticism and praise, mournful yet optimistic. This last might seem a strange assertion, considering the undeniable demise (or self-implosion) of the PCI, but Magri is careful to evaluate every historical misstep with an eye to paths not taken—suggesting how, with the slightest of twists, defeat might have been transformed into resounding victory. Not only do we have no comparable taking-stock among historians of the Anglophone Left, we have no one who so clearly indicates the "possible" paths forward.

The history of the PCI was not, however, merely one of regrettable errors; from their mass base at the end of the Second World War they wrought a lasting coalition of some two million members, receiving their highest proportion of the vote in 1976 (34%) and their second-highest in 1984—at a point when most other communist parties were in disarray, if not active retreat. Along the way they managed to draft Europe's most progressive constitution, carve out an enduring place in Italian politics, and (at first hesitantly, then more confidently after the invasion of Prague) to distance themself from the abuses of the Soviet Union while remaining firmly committed to the achievement of communism.

Magri takes us through each stage in this complicated saga, offering not just a summary of events but also a critical analysis and, at times, a first-hand perspective. (Magri joined the Party in the early '50s, was expelled in '69, and rejoined in 1984.) Occasionally he breaks with historical sequence to assert his own contemporaneity, at times quite viscerally: "I confess that at this point, a profound doubt paralyzed my work on the book for weeks and months." Far from disrupting the narrative, such passages convey the tremendous difficulty of coming to grips with the past in its dialectical relation to the present. I was reminded of Walter Benjamin's insistence that sequence becomes history only posthumously, and that "the historian who proceeds from this consideration ceases to tell the sequence of events like beads on a rosary. He grasps the constellation into which his own era has entered, along with a very specific earlier one."

How does that earlier era measure up from the vantage of the present? In this complex balance sheet, Togliatti (who led the party from 1927 to his death in 1964) comes off reasonably well. With both courage and flexibility—and partly thanks to the legacy of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks—he managed to transform a small vanguard into a genuine "people's party," to steer it through the Stalin era and the shock of de-Stalinization, and in his last years to foresee (but alas, not to prevent) the devastating consequences of the Sino-Soviet split as well as the vital importance of the new youth movements.

Unsurprisingly, Luigi Longo (party secretary from 1964 to 1972) comes in for greater criticism, and the Berlinguer of the 1970s for much stronger critique. What is surprising is that Magri identifies a "second Berlinguer" of the 1980s, one who took a quite radical turn towards class struggle and the wholesale critique of the existing political system. Unfortunately, Berlinguer's death in 1984 led to a period of internal division from which the Right of the PCI emerged triumphant, only to seal their Pyric victory by dissolving the PCI into a new "Democratic Party of the Left"—which, through several name changes and while hemorrhaging members, ultimately merged into an anodyne "Democratic Party" stripped of all vestiges of its communist heritage.

The death or suicide of the Italian Communist Party was by no means pre-ordained; in 1991 it still counted 1.5 million active members and some 28% of the vote, and had sufficiently distanced itself from the Soviet Union to survive the latter's collapse. Only one year later, Italy was engulfed in corruption scandals (posthumously confirming Berlinguer's critique) which destroyed the entirety of the existing political spectrum. The PCI, virtually the only major party to have avoided implication in the scandal, would have stood a good chance of emerging as the victor from these ruins, had not the leadership just concluded, with tremendous historical irony, that the conditions for the existence of a communist party were no longer fortuitous.

This conclusion had been bitterly contested by a substantial minority of the leadership, primarily organized around Ingrao. The so-called "No Front" commissioned Magri to draft a platform defending the continued relevance and vitality of the communist tradition, and to address the challenges and promises facing the party in the post-Cold War period. After the No Front went down to defeat, Magri put this document away in a drawer, only to exhume it as the final, unaltered chapter of his "possible" history. "It must have been a good drawer," he writes, "because twenty years later, to my eyes at least, it doesn't seem to have aged so much."

This is an understatement. Magri's platform, addressing everything from the ecological crisis to the women's and social movements to the transition to post-Fordism, presents a compelling case not just for the relevance but the indispensability of a renewed Communist Party. With incredible prescience, he predicts the increase of unwaged and precarious labor, the irreversible decline of the first-world industrial sector, the rise of financialization, and the corresponding reduction in the role of the nation-state (which remains vital, but in a largely reflexive, managerial capacity—what Margi calls the "impotent sovereign"). Perhaps his most poignant contribution is to note that such developments, far from revealing the redundancy of "traditional" Marxism, in fact confirm Marx's essential hypothesis: that "the exploitation of living labor will become a paltry basis for the general development of wealth," which "should mean that the discourse of communism, in its original, emancipatory meaning, has come of age for the first time in history."

Magri is not naïve about the obstacles, nor about the need to fundamentally rethink the role and nature of the party in the post-industrial era. In a manner which prefigures Dean's conception of "the people," Magri calls for the party as "the stimulus and synthesis of a whole system of autonomous political movements, through which a multiplicity of social subjects together weld a new historic block." Unlike Dean, he believes such a synthesis must mobilize beneath the banner of democracy, not despite but because of the self-evident vacuity of bourgeois democratic forms; with Lenin he insists that genuine democracy is achievable only through socialism, but adds that socialism is inconceivable without democracy. His conception of an innovative party which compensates for capitalism's "democratic deficit" with the construction of a collective political subject should be read alongside Dean's proposal, not (pace Isaac) as its antithesis, but as its comradely counterpoint.

And who is the Tailor of Ulm? Magri refers to the poem of Brecht in which an enterprising tailor constructs a flying machine and summons the bishop of Ulm to watch him take flight—only to plummet precipitously back to earth. And yet, Magri concludes, hundreds of years later humans did learn how to fly; how many tries will it take before communism, too, lifts off the ground?

Forget the twentieth century, anyone interested in the "possible history" of communism in the twenty-first century should—no, must—pick up this book.

1 On page 9 of his Precarious Rhapsody, Franco ("Bifo") Berardi writes: "The heirs of Leninism[...] are no longer capable of interpreting the signs that come from the new social reality, and oscillate between a 'reformist' position of subordination to liberal hyper-capitalism and a 'resistant' position that re-proposes old ideologies." In his subsequent analysis of the Italian "long '68" this oscillation collapses into a single (contradictory) condemnation: the PCI is simultaneously faulted for being too reformist and too Stalinist. Thus he speaks of "the political agenda of the Stalinist-reformist party" (p. 22) and "this special blend of reformist Stalinism that the PCI embodied" (p. 23).


2 One (slightly dated) exception is Donald Sassoon's Strategy of the Italian Communist Party (New York: St Martin's, 1981), now unfortunately out of print.



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  • I want to thank Bennett for this thoughtful essay.

    I have jotted down a few places where we might engage. they appear in their own post here on Kasama: "The Italian Communist Party: Thoughts and Evaluations"

    Comment last edited on about 8 months ago by Mike Ely
  • This is a very well thought-out review. I also read Magri's book, but found it quite a bit more disappointing, and was, throughout, puzzled by Magri's continual upholding of Togliatti (who I had always perceived to be a deeply conservative figure in communist history, contra Bordiga).

    Much of my same criticism has already been laid out by Mike (see the comment above). But one thing that Mike doesn't focus on is revolutionary potentials that the PCI abandoned after WWII as well as before--primarily during the massive restructuring of the global economy beginning in the 1970s. Magri is utterly dismissive of the Autonomia at all stages, basically speaking of them as if they were not as consequential as the minor percentile jumps the PCI was making in electoral victories. Certainly, the Autonomia failed, but they still seemed to hold far more revolutionary potential than the PCI did in the 1970s--and it is astounding that the PCI never once considered what might come if they mobilized their mass base in support of the movement, even amidst (a fair) autonomist distrust of the party.

    But I think the more interesting question that the above article draws out is the role of SYRIZA, a party that many on Kasama have supported. The above article definitely lays out an argument for why a party like SYRIZA might be important -- but I think that argument fails for the same reasons as those pointed out by Mike. These parties abandon revolution. It is their modus operandi to castigate and scold any who are pushing for more immediate revolutionary action (or any forcible revolution), arguing that the time is not right, that it's not what the people want, that we have to maintain "order" against the chaos of insurrection or civil war--that "order" of course being capitalism, plain and simple, even if one clothed in the ephemera of social democracy.

    This isn't to say that all electoral interventions are bad, but to say that parties that seek to be electoral parties more or less exclusively, will never be revolutionary. Contrasted with these electoral parties are insurrectionary parties, such as the Bolshevik RSDLP (after 1912ish), which may have periodically engaged in elections (and emerged from a more reformist electoral body), but only as a fraction of their political activity, and always as a means to revolution, rather than a stand-in for it.

  • Guest (Bennett Carpenter)

    In reply to: NPC

    Hey NPC, thanks very much for the comments. I absolutely agree with you that the 1970s was really an era of tremendous failure in terms of the PCI's unwillingness to engage with the revolutionary potential of the various autonomist groups. At the same time, I think the fault here was really on both sides, and that autonomism should come in for an equally trenchant critique.

    Have you read Phil Edwards' "More Work! Less Pay!"? It's an in-depth analysis of that time-period from a perspective openly sympathetic to the autonomists. All the more remarkable, then, that I came away from it thinking that these latter were (if possible) even more responsible for the "missed opportunities" than the PCI.

    However, I disagree with you that Magri is "utterly dismissive of the Autonomia at all stages." Indeed, his break from the PCI in the late '60s largely had to do with his more sympathetic view towards these new movements, which he was urging the PCI to engage with as meaningful partners. The new group he started (Partito di Unità Proletaria) attempted to unite these various forces into a party to the left of the PCI (an attempt which was largely rebuffed). And the closing chapter of his book is an attempt to show how the CP could and should engage with such movements going forward, explicitly adopting several points first formulated by Negri, etc in the 70s. So in my view his reading of this time period is considerably more nuanced.

  • I agree that the Autonomists were probably more guilty of missing those opportunities, on a lot of different levels.

    I had the impression that Magri wasn't really arguing for engagement with the Autonomia as such but with the new "social movements" in Italy at the time (the environmental movement, the womens' movement, etc.), which certainly had overlap (Federici is a good example), but were not the same thing--the same social movements emerged in most other western countries around the same time, but elsewhere were not necessarily accompanied by the factory occupations and creation of "autonomous" space that was seen in Italy and Germany. My impression of his dismissiveness, is that he reduces these things to their "civil society" aspect, ignoring the insurrectionary side of it -- and despite the failures of the Autonomia, which are many, I think it's fair to say that Italy was one of the few countries in the west that came closest to a truly revolutionary situation in the 1970s. Engaging with "civil society" social movements, as Magri argues (obviously in the Gramscian tradition), seems like it would have simply been another, better method for the PCI to throw water on the coals and reconsolidate a new round of "grassroots" reformism--again in the justification that "it isn't the right time."

    I don't have the book on me right now, though, so maybe I am incorrect and Magri was more explicitly talking about the base of the Autonomia. I certainly don't remember getting that impression, though he talked a lot about social movements, and his theses (never adopted) were very social-movement-centric.

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  • Guest (Bennett Carpenter)

    In reply to: NPC

    As to SYRIZA, my take here is different too. But I'm curious what you think of specific forces (as in Venezuela, etc) that came to power democratically?

    (Not to say that the ballot box is the only way to come to power—quite the contrary—but I'm curious if you dismiss all such attempts as inherently reformist.)

  • One problem here is, of course, that being "revolutionary" is caught in an historical catch-22, only verified after-the-fact. So the RSLDP may well have been nothing but a reformist party, if the Bolsheviks had not re-consolidated it and turned it into a revolutionary organization. But presently, I think it's clear that the government in Venezuela is reformist in action (and it admits as much) -- it's fully integrated into global capitalism (even if it's on the "left" side of it, like any Social Democratic government), its basic mode of engagement is the reform of the legal apparatus and the instigation of social movements, with relatively minor changes made to the country's basic economic structure. With Venezuela, though, it's also clear that there is a real bottom-up energy, and that Chavez was a figure made by the people of Venezuela, who then saw popular power embodied in the actual reforms. I don't think there are illusions otherwise -- in Bolivia, for instance, Linera (the VP), has said pretty openly that Bolivia is capitalist and will be capitalist for decades before it could even pretend at any form of socialism, with the obvious presumption that the "revolutionary" party presides over and maintains a capitalist system. Linera's conception also (moreso than in Venezuela) sometimes seems pretty explicitly evolutionist, pretending that there can be this slow, largely non-violent break with capitalism and transition into something else.

    The Latin American social democracies are still basically a detente with a frequently rebellious population -- and population that may well have been capable of fighting a revolution, though that might not have been the best choice. I don't know enough about Latin America to say whether or not it would have been a viable choice to pursue revolution immediately -- but given the history of US intervention in the area, I'd err on the safer route, and presume that a Chavez or Aristide-style electoral route was probably the correct choice. What I am more suspicious of is when "the time" actually is -- because, again, it is the basic modus operandi of a reformist party (even one calling itself "revolutionary") to constantly reproduce the same in the justification that "the time is not right" and "this is the best we can do."

    Meanwhile, rather than slowly severing Venezuela (and the loose bloc around it) from dependence on global capital flows, it seems like there has simply been a reorientation away from dependence on the US/EU and toward integration with what may become a new pole of international capital in China. Venezuela is, for example, one of the largest borrowers from the China Development Bank (China's primary FDI apparatus)--so in one sense they have simply switched from IMF dependency to a much more amenable dependency on the capital liquidity offered by the CDB (also happening in Africa and SE Asia). But there is little doubt that China, though still calling itself socialist (and even still pretending it is paving the way toward the abolition of capitalism), is of course a major capitalist power. Aside from this there is also the obvious dependence of any state build up around oil revenues. My view of this is obviously skewed, though, since I know far more about the economic aspects of Latin America (particularly re: trade with Asia) than the historical or social ones -- but the economic dependence still exists.

    The build-up of grassroots popular power and the spread of a regional bloc of populist governments could all be very good precursors to an actual revolutionary project "when the time comes." The problem is: in the view of these parties, will the time actually ever come? And when the time does come, in the view of the people, will it require the violent smashing of these parties themselves, or will they embrace it? The history of Social Democratic governments makes me more pessimistic.

    Again, the basic distinction I use is: Are these parties supporting or condemning the radical actions of the people--even if only a minority of the people? For example, the PCI's majority body basically ignored (or even condemned) the radical actions of the Italian people during the 1970s (from the Autonomia to the new social movements). Magri tries to forge a middle ground, arguing for the PCI to support the more moderate wing of these new forces (the social movements, but not the insurrectionary or means-of-production-seizing side of the Autonomia). Similarly, with SYRIZA, there has been a shift from openly supporting the actions (even violent) of the people, to gradually disassociating from them, and even openly condemning those "violent rioters" in the name of maintaining order and "protecting democracy." This has been concurrent with the attempt at conservative consolidation by the right wing of Syn, represented by Tsipras, who has also made more and more concessions to the demands of international capitalists. Whether or not the left-wing of the party can succeed in defeating this rightward turn remains to be seen, but I am doubtful that whatever emerges will still be "SYRIZA" in any meaningful sense, though a more disciplined revolutionary organization may arise in its place.

    Contrast these examples with Venzuela, where Chavez always at least had support for grassroots movements--even violent and/or illegal ones, so long as they actually represented these more radical aspirations (rather than the rich students rioting because the universities were opened to the poor). Then, of course, contrast them with the Bolshevik RSDLP, which was more than simply supportive of these radical aspirations emerging from all corners. The PCI seems very different, by comparison, even if Magri had gotten what he wanted.

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  • Guest (Red Goat)

    I want first to welcome Bennett's clear, critical, and comradely voice into the pages of Kasama. I look forward to seeing the discussion of his article, of the Magri book, of the historical experience of the PCI, and of what all of this means for communists today, unfold....As I see it already has begun to, in particular with Mike's post.

    One core issue that appears to be at stake between Bennett's take and Mike's comes down to whether or not the PCI's post war trajectory was determined primarily by its (too pessimistic?) appraisal of the post-war political situation (Bennett's view), or by deeper conservatizing/counter-revolutionary tendencies that were at work in the organization at the level of the theory and practice well before the "historic compromise" was made? How to go about deciding this question? (I'm certainly not in the position to do more than frame it....I know very little about the historical particularities here; I am eager to listen and learn.) Of course, if we think dialectically here, we can consider also how so the strategic pessimism (whether based in a realistic assessment or an overly cautious one) could have fueled and reinforced certain conservative tendencies within the PCI at the level of theory and practice (what *were* these tendencies, btw? and what counter-tendencies in or around the PCI were there, and how did these fair?). Similarly we can consider how so conservative assumptions and ambitions may have (mis)informed the PCI's post-war "strategy"? How to understand the dialectic here? Which aspects were primary and determining? What were the alternate possibilities at each stage? (I look forward to hearing more!)

  • Guest (Bennett Carpenter)

    Mike: thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, which I've responded to at length on the other thread.

  • I remember the first time I actually read a document by the PCI, possibly in the 1970s or '80's, I was stunned. After all the crap I read in the mainstreampress treating this as a communist party whose members were simply unaware of the invasion of afghanistan so didn't care, I found that this party was just a labor party that never mentioned Marx or Lenin. I know today there are several REAL communist parties including two who are Maoists, but the official PCI had nothing to do with communism. They even admitted that the name was only being used for traditional purposes. They later changed their name to the Party of Democratic Socialism (or something like that) and it meant no real change since it hadn't been a real communist party for many years.