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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.
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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.)
"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).