Walter Kendall 1982
Source: Times Literary Supplement, 25 June 1982. A review of Donald Sassoon, The Strategy of the Italian Communist Party: From the Resistance to the Historic Compromise (Frances Pinter, London, 1981). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Is the Italian Communist Party (PCI) a revolutionary party constrained by objective circumstances to pursue largely reformist objectives? Has it ‘betrayed’ The Revolution? Or was it never a revolutionary party at all?
Donald Sassoon in The Strategy of the Italian Communist Party readily concedes that the PCI deliberately set out to block such revolutionary opportunities as existed in the years 1943-48, even going so far as unilaterally to break the Anti-Fascist Front and to join an openly bourgeois government under a reactionary king. He argues somewhat too glibly, some may think, that this was no ‘betrayal’ of socialism, since Togliatti, the party’s Moscow-imposed leader, never intended to do otherwise. Millions of Italians, notwithstanding, genuinely believed ‘Communism’ to stand for something different. One might have thought they did so with some reason.
Sassoon clearly considers the PCI to be revolutionary in ‘essence’ by virtue of its origins as a subordinate section of the Communist International founded by the Bolsheviks in their own image after 1917, an origin which clearly demarcates the party from ‘social democracy’ of whatever stripe. PCI policy, Sassoon argues, was settled at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1935, and Togliatti, and by implication Berlinguer, have continued this same policy more or less consistently ever since.
There are some problems here. In the first place, this approach would appear to assume what has to be proved, namely that to be ‘pro-Soviet’ is to be ‘revolutionary’. In the second, it clearly implies that Togliatti’s much-vaunted ‘Italian Road to Socialism’ is not ‘Italian’ at all. In the third place, other Communist parties, most notably the Bulgarian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, also the Yugoslav, and less successfully the Greek, were equally bound by Comintern policy, yet acted in a very different way.
The problem exists, too, at a deeper level. Is the test of ‘revolutionism’ to be found in theory or in practice? If the test is purely theoretical, then all the arguments are circular, and we are back in the age of scholasticism. The truth is to be established by the exegetical examination of texts, scarcely, if at all, by reference to events in the real world. Sassoon does indeed appear to reason very much in this way. His texts are mainly PCI texts. The PCI is revolutionary by definition. That its action may be ‘reformist’ and much of its behaviour reactionary is thus beside the point. The PCI in much the same fashion is the party of the working class, even though industrial workers have never been more than a minority within its ranks.
One might have expected Sassoon, as a professed Marxist, to trace the evolution of PCI policy against the background of the political traditions and the economic and class structure of Italian society, while detailing the organisational form and internal class composition of the PCI. One would have hoped also to find some portrayal of the other actors on the social scene, to be given some precise estimate of the PCI’s political successes and failures, and to be shown how party policy emerged from a necessary interaction between objective and subjective factors. Unfortunately, however, the author reveals no knowledge of the nature and problems of the Italian economy, nor of the complex history of the Italian labour movement and the Italian political system as a whole. Nor does he mention any of the worthwhile sociological studies of the PCI which have appeared in recent years. Instead, the reader is offered a largely ‘idealist’ work which, somewhat in the manner of the much-abused ‘cult of the individual’, seeks to portray the development of the PCI as the outcome of the behaviour of one Great Man, Palmiro Togliatti, whose thought in its turn was shaped and determined by another still Greater Man, Antonio Gramsci.
It has to be admitted that at first sight this presentation has a certain convincing simplicity. The PCI is still indeed the ‘party of Togliatti’ much as the Russian party in its time was the ‘party of Lenin’ and of Stalin, the French of Thorez, the German of Thälmann – or the British of Pollitt for that matter. Nor can there be any doubt that Togliatti’s return to Italy after many years’ absence in Moscow constituted a turning-point in the history of the PCI and of Italian society generally. But are things, especially in Italy, always what they seem? Togliatti certainly flew to Italy from Moscow some months after the Comintern was formally disbanded. But did he leave of his own volition, or at Stalin’s behest? There can be no doubt of the importance which the Italian party leadership in the later postwar years has attributed to Gramsci. But is Gramsci truly the fountainhead of PCI behaviour? Or is his thought merely the consciously-manufactured fetish behind which the PCI apparatus manoeuvres to advance its own bureaucratic interests, to increase its influence on Italian society, and latterly to achieve greater latitude in its relations with Moscow? Is ideology paramount? Or could it be merely self-interest?
In 1943-44 Andrei Vyshinsky, Russia’s representative on the Allied Control Council for Italy, found himself hedged in on every side, powerless to influence events. As a means of breaking out of this isolation Stalin, in March 1944, recognised the Badoglio government, thus obtaining direct influence on the Italian political scene. Some fourteen days later Togliatti landed in Italy, reversed former Communist policy, and initiated the ‘turn’ which took the Communists into a coalition government under the King, thus further increasing Russian leverage.
On this view the PCI’s assigned role from the very beginning was to influence Italian society in a direction favourable to the aims of Russian foreign policy, not at all to take power on its own account or to reshape Italian society in a socialist direction. That is why the PCI sought to become a mass, parliamentary party, rather than a cadre organisation, and why it needed to find in Gramsci an authentic national guru with whom to authenticate its own somewhat shady credentials. That is why the party has adopted Eurocommunism, which quite apart from helping to ensure its own survival also seeks to create an ‘independent’, neutral, pro-Soviet Europe. There is thus indeed a basic continuity in PCI postwar policy, although not at all that which Sassoon perceives.
Sassoon begins his study with Togliatti’s return. He sees this as independent both of Stalin’s problems and Vyshinsky’s role – of which indeed he appears to be quite unaware. He thus takes the PCI’s own version of events at face value, thereby failing to exercise a proper critical sense. Togliatti on one occasion reproved a close colleague who had charged him with talking revolution while intending no more than reform. ‘Nino, Nino’, Togliatti is reported to have said. ‘Non capisce. In Italia la politica e piū una questione d'apparenza, che de realtā.’ 
The warning is a valid one which all of us would do well to remember, not only in the present, but in the future as well.
1. ‘Nino, Nino, you don’t understand. In Italy politics is more a question of appearances than of reality.’ [Thanks to Jane Ennis for the translation – MIA.]