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Italian Communist Experience: Revolution and Counter-revolution

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[Picture above: Italian fighters from the communist-led resistance to fascism. Was their movement led onto the communist road or the capitalist road?]

by Mike Ely

A lot of thoughts are triggered by Bennett D. Carpenter' essay, "One review of The Tailor of Ulm."

Let me first thank Bennett for introducing us to Lucio Magri's book Tailor of Ulm, and placing some important controversies on the table. Because I haven't yet read  Magri's work, my comments below are about Bennett's essay and the issues it raises... not about the book he is reviewing.

* * * * * * * * * * ** 

Here are a few distinct points, presented as a way of entry, and as a way of injecting a communist  approach to the controversies:

1) For whom?

The question basically posed here is "how do we evaluate forces, past or present?"

What do we draw from the history of the Communist Party of Italy, how do we evaluate their course? What do we draw from those experiences for our own theory and practice?

And, while Bennett is not explicit in stating his standards, it seems implicit in a number of his comments. For one thing, he sees to see popular support as its own virtue:

"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."

In other words, how can you argue with two million members? If someone gets 34% of the popular vote, isn't that great? Doesn't that prove that their road isn't just a road of errors?

But that seems to sidestep the key question, "For what?"

If communists win popular votes by ceasing to be communists, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Who and what are they serving (as they build that "lasting coalition")?

In other words, if you think growth of support is the key or only criterion for measurement, then who can deny that the PCI was among the most successful parties in western Europe.

But think through the implications of that -- where that road and that measurement would take us. And i mean that literally: If we adopt that measure of success, where will we (as a movement) go?

Don't we have to start with the questions "for what? for who?": and then seek out and uphold those who served the oppressed and sought to achieve socialism and communism? And then explore how to achieve popular support for that cause, and on that basis.

2) Making the revolutionary moment visible

What is our framework for exploration? I can see that Bennett is emerging from a framework where the poles of discussion are framed by dogmatists on one hand (who he calls "Stalinists") and autonomists on the other (Negri etc.)

Bennett writes:

"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."

But let me ask: such reputations are only "unfortunate" if they are not true, right?

Let me give one example from the essay:

"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."

There is so much packed into this that it is worth unraveling in detail, phrase by phrase, word by word, verdict by verdict. I won't do that here, and perhaps others want to do so.

But I do want to point out one thing:

The key moment for the PCI was the end of World War 2. The italian fascist government was crumbling, the armed resistance was arising from underground with the PCI at their very popular core, imperialist troops were marching up the peninsula.

This was one of the very few moments in modern European history (since 1933) that a genuine, popular, socialist revolution seemed possible. And (to state some of my own sense of standards) we should judge communist, revolutionary movements by how they respond, and what they represent in such moments. Are they prepared to make revolution? Do they even want to make revolution? Do they even try it? (And if they don't, then how can Bennett imagine the PCI of Togliatti was rooted in "the legacy of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks" when Gramsci was a revolutionary in theory and practice)? 

In both France and Italy, the communist parties (which emerged bloodied, armed and popular) threw power away. They capitulated and handed over the people to capitalism. And (in exchange) received a place in that new emerging post-war capitalist order (as a kind of permanent, toothless, highly demagogic opposition).

Bennett calls this "steering it through the Stalin era" -- which is a remarkable, compressed, and neutered way of putting it, especially because the possibility of seizing power is not raised.

So, if we want to make a balance sheet of the PCI, it seems very odd (and revealing) that this key moment of crisis and possibility doesn't enter into the equation.

In short: Are we really going to judge communists by whether they can get votes year after year, and not by whether they can lead people in revolution?

So let me drill into some particular questions:

Does Togliatti "come off reasonably well" in our communist evaluation of history -- when evaluated by communist revolutionary standards? Or is he someone who threw away the rare and unique chance to make revolution at the end of World War 2, and then pursued capitalist politics for the rest of his life?

How did Togliatti "steer" his party through "the shock of de-Stalinization"?

I mean, don't we have to (at least!) examine what stand he and his party took during that "shock" and what politics they represented, whether they took the communist road or the capitalist road in those intense line struggles? Not observe merely whether they held together and survived or even prospered -- after that "shock"?

3) The critiques of those times: 1962 when the ICM cracked open

And then, there is Bennett's passing reference of the "devastating consequences of the Sino-Soviet split."

This is another interesting, compressed, and neutered phrase.This is how much history of communism is discussed, as if certain verdicts are universal, uncontested and can simply be "referred to" (and not even explained).

So let me ask questions about this phrase:

What was "devastating" about the Sino-Soviet split?

Are you assuming that this split was wrong, unnecessary, and destructive? For whom? For which class? For which case?

And why would we call it the "Sino-Soviet split" (the way bourgeois think-tanks refer to it) as if it was (in essence) some geo-political break up? Wasn't this also a great struggle within the world communist movement over what road to walk? Over how to view and build socialism? Over whether revolution was a good thing or not?

To inject a personal note: One of the "consequences" of the great struggle within the ICM is that people like me came alive. Communism got a second birth... it emerged from a gray corrupted exposed and compromised "unity" and gave birth to something quite fresh. One divides into two. Without that split it is hard to imagine a survival of communism (and just look at those forces, like the CPUSA, in the world today, and imagine if they can invent a movement for liberation).


I would like to argue that if we are going to discuss the experience of the PCI we should allow the views and verdicts of communist revolutionaries into the discussion (not simply view this as a debate between supporters of the PCI and academic post-autonomists).

And for that, it is worth revisiting an early (even primitive) expression of modern communism: The essay "The Differences between Comrade Togliatti and Us." This essay was one of the very first signs that someone was arising within the world communist movement to challenge the Soviet rejection of revolution. that someone was Mao, of course. And it was the first discussion of the issues that would soon shatter the old communist movement, and open the door to a new one.

It was soon followed by a second famous essay "More on the differences between Comrade Togliatti and us."

This was (as I said) a very early and primitive "first shot" of this struggle, which would become very deep and all-sided. Much more would be excavated and put on the table over the following years... and by the following year, communist revolutionaries (around the world) would be leaving the old and increasingly reactionary parties, and forming new ones -- including in Italy.

4) Communist analysis of "historic compromise"

On the question of "historic compromise" -- I am very grateful that Bennett has raised this important question, because quite a few revolutionary people are unfamiliar with this concept, its history and its implications -- even though it played a major role in ending the revolutionary movements of Europe, and still profoundly influences modern left currents (including in the U.S.) even if they don't use the phrase.

In italy, this "historic compromise" was a call for a coalition between the PCI and the Christian Democrats (the hegemonic ruling party of Italy for much of the post war period). But it really was a call, by pro-Soviet communists outside the Soviet Bloc, for a major reallignment of capitalist politics -- to bring the country (Italy) out of the U.S.-centered bloc, and (while maintaining the capitalist nature of the society and politics) moving it into a neutral position, or a friendly allignment with the Soviet imperialist bloc.

Italy had always moved back and forth between the rival imperialist blocs in Europe. Churchill's famous joke to the German representative was "We got them last time, you get them this time." (Since Italy had been aligned with Britain in WW1 and would be allied with Hitler in WW2.)

Italy has always been a country where the major colliding bourgeois parties tended to represent potential alliances with different external imperialist powers. (It is similar in, say, Denmark where the socialdemocrats tended to be pro-british, and the conservatives tended to be pro-german.)

But this very Italian proposal by the PCI had echos around the world. One of the most detailed and revealing explanation of this is the very valuable work by Jorge Palacios, Chile: An attempt at "historic compromise" : the real story of the Allende years. [We should scan this precious work, and organize study around it -- it is not just an insightful strategic analysis, but also an important work of method.]

In it, Palacios (then leader of the Chilean Maoist party) explains how the Communist Party of Chile was proposing this same "historic compromise" to the established parties of Chile (including particularly the Christian Democrats), and lays out the profound and disasterous consequences of this quite counter-revolutionary politics. It is worth reading in depth.

Part of what comes out of such analysis, is a different appraisal of the PCI and of similar parties (like the CPUSA in the U.S.) It is not an analysis that they are reformist socialist -- but rather something quite different: That they in a very basic sense represent bourgeois politics, that their vision and goals are a society that would be capitalist and untransformed (with perhaps a lipservice veneer of "socialism") -- and that they operate as a bourgeois force within the ranks of the people, strategically and programatically working to put the struggles and hopes of the people into service of very bourgeois maneuverings and coalitions.

This is rather different from Bennett's embedded assumption, where he says:

"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."

In other words, historic compromise is (in this view) a communist policy and proposal that assumes (pessimistically) that this is the best we can do.

But, in fact, even if our situation was disasterous, and there were few positive choices, "historic compromise" would be counter-revolutionary.

In other words, "historic compromise" is not the policy of "communists who are too pessimistic," it is the politics of a "communist party" that has abandoned revolution, radical change, overthrowing the reactionary right, preparing for future revolutionary moments, and everything else that should be at the core of communist politics.

That goes to the heart of an evaluation of such forces. Are they "bad communists" who have gone a bit soft, and are a bit pessimistic, and a bit corrupted by their political electoralism. Or are they forces who (in a basic way) have gone over, have become themselves a mainstay of capitalist politics, a pillar of the system, and a force focused on keeping the popular movements within a reactionary framework?

We see this same kind of politics around us in the U.S. as well -- where some forces in the people's movements are seeking to harness radical energies and divert them back into the system (into loyal support for Obama, for example), and constantly craft social movements to operate in frameworks subordinated to the needs of major bourgeois political forces (i.e. the Democrats, and the ruling class interests they represent).


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People in this conversation

  • I largely agree with what Mike writes above. But it might also be helpful to look further back into the history of the PCI in searching for its failure to seize revolutionary opportunities. The original turn-over of power in the PCI from the founding Bordigist faction to the Gramsci faction, later epitomized by Togliatti, actually occurred in the mid 20s, concurrent with the Comintern's shift to supporting the "united front" just as Fascism was on the rise. Earlier, the Comintern (while Lenin was still alive), had actually scolded Bordiga for not purging this reformist wing from the party. Just when there was still a realistic possibility of resisting Fascism in Italy (and elsewhere), while it was still weak, unpopular and unconsolidated, the USSR withdrew its support for militant anti-fascist action, instead opting for the formation of failed unity governments based on alliances with social democrats. It was often the failure of these social democratic experiments (such as the Weimar republic in Germany) that incubated the next wave of the far-right. Ironically, the policy was then reversed just as Fascism had been truly consolidated in Italy and had gained much more support in Germany, often leading the then-whittled-down insurrectionary capacity of the European parties into pyrrhic actions that spelled their momentary demise under the rising far-right. Then, of course, the policy was reversed again (to the "Popular Front") when revolution had actually arisen in Spain. All the European parties were caught in this frustrating and often ill-timed back-and-forth, which was really rooted in the bizarre requirements that every party's general trajectory in every country ought to be dictated by the decisions of the centralized comintern--even when plenty of parties had better information and intuition locally.

  • Just to be clear: Every part of this pre-history NPC lays out seems confused to me. And the construction of his argument seems demagogic.

    Shift of communist policy are portrayed as "ironic" (read stupid), everu decision by the communists is portrayed as absurd (without respect, context or real engagement).

    Lenin calls for a party of communists in 1919, this is portrayed as absurd since Gramsci is then to become the communist leader... In fact we communists are not as simple or paradoxical or stupid as portrayed. And the correct road to pursue is not obvious or simple or enshrined.

    In fact, shifts of policy (given overall shifts in objective reality) are necessary, and are made even more complex when you are not (as was the case in Europe during the 1930s) simply a party in opposition but also function as a "state in a system of states."

    Jorge Palacios once said to me "We have nothing to lose but our chains -- but what happens when we have a state and a socialist society, suddenly our class has something to lose."

    The summation that the USSR sabotaged the fight against fascism is one of those things that are said, assumed and passed on -- without critical examination.

    I have myself written essays on the policies of the Comintern (including in the Third Period)... but I just want to say, this too is facile, and in service for a general, sweeping and false portrayal of the communist movement and the comintern as corrupt and stupid.

    Comment last edited on about 8 months ago by Mike Ely
  • In reply to: Mike Ely

    What are you talking about? I'm not against shifts in policy. I think it was a fundamentally bad model wherein decision-making was centralized in a body that was often rather distant from facts on the ground which would dictate a universal model for what communist parties ought to be doing regardless of particular conditions, often leading to the suffocation of revolutionary potential on the ground. It has absolutely nothing to do with corruption or stupidity--words that you put in my mouth, rather than looking at what's been written. No amount of intelligence or acumen could have made such a model work, because you simply cannot dictate universal conditions of world revolution from afar. As you say, shifts of policy given overall shifts in objective reality are necessary -- the problem is that the two were divorced, and often in direct contradiction.

    Would you advocate such a model of centralized decision-making severed from local conditions? Is that the difference of opinion here?

    You associate what I am saying with a narrative of reducing everything to the 'sabotage' of the USSR -- but is that what I'm saying above? Is that the sum total of the failures? No. It was a failure of every communist party in Europe to not stand up and forge a different path, pushing for revolution when it was possible, even if the comintern's policy was different. The reason I point to the Gramsci-Bordiga split earlier is because I think the reformist problems of the PCI are actually rooted in these earlier struggles within the party--struggles which the Bordigists are guilty of failing to win, often disengaging when the comintern turned against them rather than pushing against the reformists nonetheless. Not to mention the major problems with Bordiga's own quasi-Blanquist model of insurrectionary practice, which suffered its first defeat at the hands of the Fascists in '22.

    At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the comintern had some bad policies -- but it's not these policies which are the root of the problem, the root of the problem is a system in which you have a single revolutionary forefront (in Russia), which overdetermines the decision-making and trajectory of revolutionary movements elsewhere.

    You have to admit that, if the PCI had pursued a revolutionary path at the supposedly "wrong" time (in the Third Period or Post-WWII), the USSR would not have condoned it, Togliatti would have been purged (potentially imprisoned, if he was in Russia), and key resources would have from that point on likely been denied.

    Of course key things ought to be pooled and centralized, even reserving the right for the international movement itself to audit particular organizations and give guidelines, suggestions, etc. But this is a far-shot from the kind of commandist centralization that the comintern often wielded.

    I'll also note that you seem to presume that many of the younger communists you talk to somehow don't know much about this history, and we are therefore portrayed as poisoned by ambient anti-communism if we give any critique of the USSR or CCP, making such critique from younger communists essentially impossible in your eyes. You seem to perceive us as simply posturing, as if we have some total theory which allows us to comment on anything, since we already know-it-all. I disagree with this. I think that many of us are very aware of this history, even if we may have differing opinions about it. We have studied it extensively. Note that I actually read the Magri book (while you didn't, yet you feel more qualified to comment on its contents?).

    And, most importantly, we are of course aware of the dangers of that ambient anti-communism, often embedded in the dismissive critique of everything-communist found in many anarchist zines. But you often approach this in such a fashion that makes critique of previous communist movements impossible when it is done by anyone other than yourself, and especially by younger communists.

    We are universally attacked for supposedly holding these dogmatic anti-communist views (or subconsciously reproducing them) whenever we make the most minor criticism of previous communist thought, even if we have studied it extensively--and even when they may match your own. How can reconception occur in this kind of atmosphere? Where is the good faith, when you attack us every time for being "anti-communist" if we critique any aspect of past communist movements? Why do you immediately assume that we are repeating the anti-communist ideological line, rather than expressing our own distinct views? And why do you continually portray us as "know-it-alls" (quoted from your snarky Facebook comment) who haven't actually studied any of this? I'm tired of this disrespectful attitude that you level at any younger communists who don't immediately endorse your line. It is commandist, unprincipled and it hinders our ability to engage in collective reconception by ignoring the issues at hand and often deliberately smearing others' positions.

    I didn't bring up the comintern policies and the pre-history of the PCI because I thought that the failures of the Italian revolutionary movements could be reduced to these things. I brought them up because you don't mention them above--even though I largely agree with your position for the post-WWII period you describe--and I think it's impossible to understand why the PCI was what it was post-WWII if we don't understand what it was in the 1920s and 30s (which is impossible without looking at its position within the comintern nexus). This means understanding the failures of the comintern model of international communist organization, which are not simply policy-by-policy mistakes, but embedded failures in the structure of decision-making, which inherently tended toward commandism and explicitly excluded what those of you coming from the Maoist tradition call the "mass line."

  • In reply to: NPC

    NPC, I wonder of you can post a link to the facebook thread you refer to. I'm curious as to who are the "us (younger communists) you are referring to. My own experience is that overall among the new (young) communists forces there is a lack of knowledge about the history of twentieth century communism. There is also a tendency among some (by no means all) to come prepared with their verdicts in spite of the things that are not understood.

    This is not to say that you fit into such a category, and for myself, I know I have much more to learn and sum up about the this history. The point is that the problem that Mike often speaks to actually exists, and that we can all use some work in being able to talk to one another in comradely ways, admit (to ourselves) what we don't know, and be open to learning even while we all are coming in to this with some preconceptions.

    While Mike's comment above are directed at you, I would urge that we look at his more general comments about the lack of historical knowledge among young communists as a statement on where we are collectively as a movement and not in a personal way.

    My experience has been that there is this "lack" of knowledge of history (and I include my own lack), and corresponding with that, again among some but not all, there has been a tendency to argue based on one's preconceptions (in spite of the lack) which creates a pull toward sectarianism.

    So, for instance, many young communists may have studied a great deal about Europe from 1917-1923 and possibly Spain in its revolutionary period but have little knowledge of the the aftermath of WWII or revolutionary China (for instance), while on the flip side some may have knowledge of revolutionary China but less about Spain or Autonomia in Italy, and so on.

    So I'm thinking we should look at the general states of our movement, avoid looking at things subjectively (or on personal terms), and be open and good at learning.

    My two cents.

    Comment last edited on about 8 months ago by Nat Winn
  • In reply to: NPC


    That's entirely true. What you point out is a major, general problem, but also one that I think this less true today than it was, say, a decade ago--the proliferation of study of communist history among radicals (cross-tendency) seems to me to be increasing, and that's a good thing, and something we ought to fight for more actively. But Mike has a method of using individuals as a foil for general problems of the left, which is a convenient way to ignore the actual issues brought up and has the side effect of sending a denigrating personal message to the person making it, saying in this case, basically: "You are ignorant and shouldn't speak on this issue."

    Now, per this particular issue, I do think it's impossible to look at Togliatti's SocDem conservatism post-WWII without understanding Gramsci's basically reactionary positions pre-WWII with the "united front," which was a programme on the direct advice of Moscow, deeply unpopular in the PCI itself, and which arguably opened the final door to the Fascist consolidation of power. This means that the problems of the PCI, post-WWII are somewhat continuous with the problems of the Gramsci-led PCI pre-WWII--and it's impossible to understand where that came from without understanding the often distanced and overgeneralized structure of comintern direction, which more often than not seemed to be very severed from objective reality.

    But it's also impossible to understand the rise of the Gramsci faction without understanding the failures of the Bordigists -- a history that seems much more little known in the US, at least, but which is an important cornerstone for today's ultra-left when we look back at the 20th century. It's this pre-history that often gets obscured under the "big events" of the Resistance, the Comintern decisions, the changes in leadership. It's also a massive blind-spot in Magri's book -- even though he talks about Gramsci, he barely even mentions Bordiga, and basically considers Togliatti to be the cornerstone of the party.

    Re: the facebook thing. I don't know how to link individual posts outside of FB. But you can go to his page, it's like 2 posts down right now (I think), and it was posted concurrently with the comment above, which is why it seems like an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference, using the same language as the comment. It may well not be a reference to this, just coincidental that it was posted at the same moment -- but the sequence was marked enough that I noticed it, and similar claims have been made before on the listserv.

  • Guest (Red Goat)

    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!)

  • It's also easy to see how the more pessimistic view of the Gramsci's faction, in the 1920s, seemed to be the better path after faced with the failure of the Bordigist model, which never built up an adequate mass base and ultimately resulted in the crushing of the insurrectionary strike waves in the early '20s, with the Fascists slowly siphoning off the mass base that the Bordigists chose to ignore--that mass base only being regained in the PCI's anti-fascist resistance during the war. Afterwards, though, I think the PCI's actions simply displayed a basic continuity with its role under Gramsci in the late 20s, more or less continuing the "united front" model that he upheld (against large opposition locally) after returning from Moscow.

    Even though it was basically a continuation of the previous policy, the historic context was utterly different, though, meaning that now the united front, rather than being a Weimar-style response to revolutionary failures, was instead a method of inclusion in the Social-Democratic wave of reform post-WWII in Europe. The logic determining it, then, was not simply contiguous with its earlier incarnation, even though it was built from the same material.

  • Guest (Bennett Carpenter)

    Mike: thanks very much for the thoughtful comments. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to post my review here at Kasama, as I hoped it would prompt just such a debate. As might be obvious, I think we disagree here on a number of points, but I hope this can be a fruitful source for comradely (and, ideally, thought-provoking) conversation. I'll try and address your points in sequence:

    1.) For whom?

    " In other words, how can you argue with success? If someone gets 34% of the popular vote, isn't that great? Doesn't that prove that their road isn't just a road of errors?"

    Of course I don't mean to suggest that popular support is the sole measure of "virtue"—by that measure, the SPD would be one of the most virtuous parties out there! A party should be measured by the content of its politics... but also, I would argue, by its popular support. (I.e. not as an absolute metric or in isolation, but as one factor among others.) I think it's obvious that any communist revolution will depend upon a level of mass support among the people. (It's equally obvious that it will face ardent opposition from the capitalist forces.) In addition to a battle in the streets, a battle for the hearts and minds of the populace thus seems of utmost importance.

    The PCI (and Togliatti) were deeply influenced by the writings of Gramsci, who in turn was responding to the failure of revolution to spread to the West. Gramsci's thesis (or rather, one of them) was that this failure had something to do with the relatively strong "civil society" which had developed in the Western European countries: "In the East the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relationship between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks."

    For Gramsci, then, revolution in the West depended upon a protracted battle to capture the "fortresses and earthworks" of civil society in addition to or alongside the task of directly seizing the State. Capitalism manufactured consent, not just through direct force, but through a complex network of civil institutions (the media, the educational institutions, the churches, etc) which, while outside the state proper, nevertheless served a crucial role in defending its legitimacy. One task of Western Communists, then, would be to develop a counter-hegemonic force with its own network of local chapters, educational centers, media, etc—not as an alternative to revolution but in a sense as its vital corollary.

    Of course, as you say, the question is not just whether you develop (counter-) hegemony but what you do with it. If you create such strong networks only to abandon commitment to revolution than you've won a battle but lost the war. This seems to be your take on the PCI—mine, while also critical, is considerably more nuanced. But this is to say that our real disagreement is not over the PCI's electoral success but over its political choices.

    2. Making the revolutionary moment visible

    "I can see that Bennett is emerging from a framework where the poles of discussion are framed by dogmatists on one hand (who he calls "Stalinists") and autonomists on the other (Negri etc.)"

    I think you miss my point. It is not that I uphold a duality in which debates are framed between "Stalinists" and "reformists" (or autonomists), but that I am precisely *criticizing* this framework for collapsing history into a highly reductive (and static) picture. I put these terms in scare-quotes because I pull them from a book by Franco Berardi, where he preemptively dismisses the PCI through the (to my eye, contradictory) critique that they are simultaneously too "reformist" and too "Stalinist." I'm not defending these terms, I'm calling them into question.

    Just as the whole history of the USSR tends to get collapsed into "Stalin—show trials—gulag" so the autonomists tend to collapse the whole history of the PCI into those two terms. And they're successful, ironically, precisely because they are so hegemonic—in terms of academic presence and also in their influence on contemporary movements (Occupy, etc). So I'm cautioning other Leftists from adopting a narrative that's been crafted by these forces, or by rushing to collapse an entire history into simplistic terms: "reformism," "betrayal," etc. Although you get there by way of Mao instead of Negri, I'm not sure you avoid such reductionism, which brings me to the second half of your second point:

    "The key moment for the PCI was the end of World War 2. [...] This was one of the very few moments in modern European history (since 1933) that a genuine, popular, socialist revolution was possible. And (to state some of my own sense of standards) we should judge communist, revolutionary movements by how they respond, and what they represent in such moments. Are they prepared to make revolution? Do they want to make revolution? Do they even try it?"

    I think this right here is the real source of our disagreement, and the point where I most strongly disagree. To be clear: there was absolutely a sense among many party cadres that the overthrow of the fascists would immediately be followed by a socialist revolution, and Togliatti absolutely tamped this down. The question, as you say, is: what verdict do we take on this decision?

    My verdict—courting controversy—is that Togliatti made the correct choice.

    To understand this, we have to go back to the period preceding the final liberation of Italy, around the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944. English and American forces occupied the southern half of the country, but had been blocked in their advance by difficult terrain and the diversion of troops to France; fascists still held the north. A national liberation struggle was forming around a plethora of anti-fascist forces (communists, socialists, and moderate liberal forces) but it was unclear in whose name they were fighting. The allies had already negotiated a peace agreement which would leave the monarchy and Marshal Badoglio's government in place, and Stalin had agreed to this and immediately recognized the Badoglio gov't without consulting the PCI—seeking to wind down the war and not wanting to risk the Yalta agreement, he was actively supressing the possibility of being drawn into costly civil wars in Western Europe which he believed (IMHO, correctly) had little chance of success.

    In response to this, Togliatti proposed a truce of sorts among the various anti-fascist forces, who would agree to fight together for the liberation of Italy and to postpone the question of the future government until the end of the war. With their forces united, the anti-fascists were able to seize the north without the aid of the Allied forces, which in turn forced the Allies to recognize Italy as a co-belligerent with the right to determine its future governmental form. (Unlike, e.g., in Japan, which was the model they had previously been proposing.) Following the war, the PCI spearheaded and won a referendum to overturn the monarcy and establish a republic, doubled its membership (from 1 to 2 million) and inserted into the constitution principles which, they believed, would pave the way for socialism. With 40% of the vote between the socialists and the communists—still, at this point, an allied front—Togliatti believed the way was paved for the Left to seize control of Italy, by way of the ballot box, within a relatively short timeframe.

    Was this optimism unfounded? Of course. (Though it was shared by Stalin, who had hoped the anti-fascist alliance would persist after '45, and showed himself willing to comply with the letter and spirit of the wartime meetings.) Did the PCI miss any number of opportunities? Again, undoubtedly. Magri discusses many of them in his book.

    But the real question here is this: could Togliatti somehow have spearheaded a communist revolution in 1944? With half the country occupied by the English and Americans, the other half in fascist hands, and a resistance composed of many different and competing factions? With Stalin actively discouraging any talk of armed rebellion in Western Europe? With the nascent division of the continent into zones of control between capitalism and communism, and Italy firmly in the capitalist half? In an exhausted Europe, where the contours of the new Cold War were just taking shape, without however being recognized by anyone?

    I do not think so. In fact, I think armed Communist rebellion would have led to a much more resounding defeat, with the English and American forces turning on the communists, with the moderate liberals (and perhaps even the socialists) engaging in an internal civil war to which Stalin would have been both unwilling and unable to offer much help—help that, if offered, might well have sparked a third world war at a point when the second was still winding down.

    It is, of course, possible to survey this situation and arrive at different conclusions. But I think it would be very difficult to suggest a reading of the situation in which a communist Italy would have been the conclusive outcome. More importantly, I think it's crucial to to give Togliatti and the PCI the benefit of the doubt—i.e., not to assume "betrayal" or a "throwing away" of opportunity but to try and evaluate how a staunch Communist might have arrived at these conclusions: what events might have looked like from his perspective, what possibilities seemed open, and why. Regardless of what conclusions you draw, I think such nuance will be more informative—and more useful—than a simplistic verdict.

    As to what I mean by the "shock of de-stalinization" and the "sino-soviet split," etc. A detailed analysis of the complex picture to which these terms make reference would require a whole book—which is exactly what Magri did. My essay is a short review of that effort, not an attempt to replace it.

    3) Letting the communist analysis in the door (especially on "historic compromise")

    I'll take a look at the two articles you posted, and respond in greater detail at a later point. (This response is getting long enough as it is!)

    4) On the question of "historic compromise"

    I will not defend the historic compromise, which I agree was a mistake. I *do* think it should be placed in the same kind of complex historical context as I tried to do with the immediate post-war period above. To dismiss the PCI as a "bourgeois force" is, it seems to me, not analytically useful; it resorts to a moralizing narrative which reduces important tactical and strategic errors to a sort of psychologism—which is itself, dare I say it, quite "bourgeois." In other words, how much *more* interesting to imagine a genuinely radical leadership arriving at the wrong conclusions, then to dismiss such leadership as corrupted on the basis of their (with hindsight) tremendous mistakes? This seems to me a bad sort of historicism: those whose decisions panned out must have been "good," those whose choices proved incorrect must have been "bad" all along.

    Of course, nothing's to say that leadership cannot become corrupted, nor that the pull of conformism/reformism is not strong. I guess I'm arguing for a sort of "communist sympathy," in which we give Leftist forces the benifit of the doubt—initially—when evaluating their motivations for pursuing policies that seem to us (again with hindisght) tremendously misguided. Given Berlinguer's subsequent "radical turn," I think this sympathy is deserved. We cannot say the PCI merely succombed to "conservative forces" when it was the same force—Berlinguer—who first made a wrong choice and subsequently a correct and quite radical one.

    I'm very glad you mention Chile, because the fall of the Allende government was (along with the coup in Greece) probably the biggest factor in determining the PCI's "historic compromise" policy. Based on these events, they concluded that—at that time period—any socialist revolution in the Western block (by the ballot box or otherwise) would be met by military intervention, whether covertly or in the form of outright invasion. In this I actually think they were correct: a PCI government in any form would have been inadmissable to the US, who would have responded with direct force—and the USSR (or China) would not, I think, have had the strength to oppose this. The conclusions that they drew from this (their belief that the DC could tolerate a real coalition gov't with the communists, and that these last could meaningfully effect gov't policy in any form) were undoubtedly incorrect, and led to disastrous consequences. Still, I think we should recognize that the PCI was really caught here between a rock and a hard place.

    The '70s were an era of any number of missed opportunities, and of tremendous errors on the part both of the PCI and of the various forces to their left (Lotta Continua, Potere Operaio, etc etc). A full analysis of the complexity of these errors would take, again, a book—if not several. We have a real dearth of these in English, though Phil Edwards' "More Work! Less Pay!" is a very good one that presents events from the autonomist side. I think Magri's actually does so from a position of considerable nuance—sympathetic to the better aspects of the autonomist critique, extremely critical of the PCI's failure to engage with these new forces and of its mistaken analysis of the situation, yet strongly recognizing the need for a *united* communist force which the autonomists largely refused to even consider.

    The underlining thrust of my whole response, here, is that "armed insurrection!" is not always and invariably the correct policy in every situation—rather, one must consider the possibilities of the historic situation and determine what course might lead to the best chance of a victory which is never easy and never gauranteed—and which, though it can't be postponed indefinitely, cannot be assumed to be right around the corner. (This is what I mean when I critique the autonomists for their "optimism.") To say that the PCI did not push hard enough is, I think—in certain situations, and in a limited sense—undeniably correct. But to castigate them as "bourgeois" or "reformist" is to go to the opposite extreme, turning a complex history into a black-and-white picture which conceals much more than it reveals, and which ignores virtually all the nuance of the (changing) situation and of the party's (changing) attempts to chart its course. Magri's book does this quite well—and, I think you will find, with many of your same criticisms—and that's why I urged people to read it.

    PS - Just tried to format my comment (block quotes, asterisks replaced with italics, headings in bold, etc) and had tremendous difficulty navigating this comments box. If a mod wants to put those formats in I would be grateful.

  • Re: formatting. In this comment system you have to type with brackets, so: <i> would instead be [i ] (w/out the second space). You do blockquotes by typing [quote ] (w/out second space) and then ending with [/quote ] (ibid). The buttons above the comment window should implement this directly, if they don't you can just type it like that.

    To respond to your actual comment:

    Of course insurrection is not always the best choice -- and you make a very good argument for why it may not have worked post-WWII. I think that the PCI actually missed a better opportunity in the 1920s, right when it was shifting to Gramsci's reformist model.

    But the bigger issue is that it's never the "right time" for revolution. It always contains more risk of failure than success, and it always involves a certain leap of faith. The decision is never even reducible to a very clear probability, so it's hard to even compare potentials for the same party in the same country in different historical contexts.

    However, I don't think it's as determined on the other end as you portray it--as if revolution in Italy would have guaranteed failure. Many of the same things were said about revolution in China (that it would amount to immediate US occupation), and those potentials existed in a strong form right up until the defeat of US forces by the Chinese in Korea. Still, nothing was guaranteed--if the decision had been made to use atomic weaponry, as was requested at the highest levels of the operation, it's likely that China would have been defeated and the revolution aborted. Nonetheless, in a similarly impossible situation, the Chinese pulled off a revolution.

    Basically, I see the problem as this: If post-WWII in Italy was not "the right time" for a revolution, if it had been doomed to failure at that moment by the historical context -- then when else in Italian history would a communist revolution have been possible? Basically, this view of the enemy forces being too powerful is more or less always true -- so does that mean that revolution should never be pursued? In my view, Italy had three major opportunities for revolution in the 20th century: 1. After WWI and the Russian Revolution -- the insurrection failed first at the hands of the Bordigists and then the attempt was abandoned under Gramsci. 2. After WWII, as Mike describes above. 3. In the 1970s, when Italy was undergoing massive capitalist restructuring and militant resistance was emerging from the bottom up in many different forms all over the country.

    At each point (even if Magri had gotten his way), the PCI basically reacted to the opportunity by foreclosing it in a renewed cycle of reformism which simply placed Italy more or less back where it had been, keeping it at least in line with developments in other European countries.

    There is, for example, no explanation by Magri how any amount of engagement with social movements or environmentalism by the PCI could have actually confronted, resisted, avoided or defeated the capitalist restructuring undergone by Italy in the 1970s and 80s -- even Magri's better model for the PCI provided absolutely zero solutions to confronting the crisis of Keynesianism, offering instead just the solution (failed there as elsewhere) of attempting *more* Keynesian stimulus in a more social democratic fashion. This is because the reformist project inherently stays within the framework of capitalism, and thus gets caught in the same hostage situation when the crisis actually comes. The autonomia, though failed, at least provided some basic image of what production and basic life might look like in order to resist the crisis imposed from outside--it at least provided a basic distance from the logic of capitalism, which the PCI did not display.

    Comment last edited on about 8 months ago by NPC
  • On the Communist Movement in Italy the (nuovo) Partito comunista italiano has written the book:
    "Manifesto Program of the (new) Italian Communist Party" at
    And many articles at:

Dig in.