A red lesson from Italy

Tear gas billowed down the street every day as rioters battled police. Enraged protesters believed that even the Communist Party had turned its back on them. One evening, amid the debris of street barricades, I spotted two party officials—famed for their underground resistance—pleading with a group of rioters to renounce violent protest.
The taller of the two was, I noticed, almost in tears as the radicals berated him for selling out. He was visibly torn: his heart was clearly with the angry youths.

This was in Rome exactly 30 years ago. The Communist Party bigwig was Giorgio Napolitano. Today, aged 82, he is the president of Italy.

It is worth recalling that episode in view of current debates about the future of the SACP. Should the party stay in the tripartite alliance, hoping to make the ANC more socialist? Or should it break away to lead a left opposition? There are many, almost uncanny, similarities. In 1944, with Italy in turmoil, the Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti returned from exile to inform an astonished rank and file—many of whom had taken over factories and thought they were poised for revolution—that they were going to opt for compromise.

Like the SACP in South Africa later, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) formulated a two-stage theory: national democratic stability first, socialism later.

The PCI nominated ministers to a coalition alliance. But communist ministers soon found that they had to demonstrate their moderation. In 1947, with the Italian prime minister about to fly to the United States to meet president Harry Truman, communist finance minister Mauro Scoccimarro stayed up all night to prepare a budget to show how finances, under communist control, were responsibly managed—and rushed this to the airport the next morning. In fact, in Washington, the prime minister and Truman discussed how to ditch the communists.

Some communists justified this two-stage approach as “a Trojan horse within the bourgeois citadel”. Yet all real reforms had to be shelved, as the communist minister of agriculture Fausto Gullo discovered with his land redistribution programme. Later many PCI leaders recognised they had made a serious tactical mistake, but by then they had squandered their major post-war strength: working-class militancy.

“We were all under the impression that the wind was blowing in our direction,” lamented Gullo, “and that therefore what was not achieved today would be achieved tomorrow.”

This is the dilemma the SACP faces: remain in government to maintain influence (at the risk of emasculation)—or break away, with a risk of drastic electoral shrinkage.

Right now the SACP seems to be enmeshed in fratricidal infighting. Some years ago the party’s deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, made some critical remarks about the “Zanufication” of the ANC. Now the SACP itself appears to be in the undisciplined throes of “Zumafication”.

It is not clear what the SACP stands for anymore. Party spokespersons still churn out hand-me-down Marxist rhetoric, yet these formulaic phrases have become increasingly empty as the distance between the party’s words and actions visibly widens.

In one sense the SACP has been in a time warp. Along with the ANC, it was driven underground and forced to seek aid from the Soviet Union as most of the capitalist West supported the apartheid regime. This was at a time when much of the radical left in the rest of the world was recoiling from the brutal distortions and crude empire-building of Soviet communism. Nevertheless the SACP, in its commitment to fighting apartheid, attracted many of the brightest and the best, from Bram Fisher to Chris Hani.

Today the SACP faces exactly the same dilemma that Italian communists had to grapple with after World War II. Historian Paul Ginsborg wrote, “they faced a seemingly insoluble dilemma, and one which was to dog them in the following decades: either they diluted the socialist content of their programme and thus attracted electoral support among shopkeepers, small employers, et cetera.; or they refused to compromise and risked leaving the working class in isolation and their alliance strategy in tatters”.

If the SACP leaves the ANC alliance, there is no telling what support it might attract. The fate of the Independent Labour Party in Britain stands as a stark warning. It broke away fromFrom page 31

the reformist Labour Party in 1931, wishing to pursue a more radical policy. Membership then was 17 000; in seven years this shrank to a miserable 2 441 and most of its leaders simply returned to the Labour Party.

In Italy, however, the communists out of government gradually built up electoral support, until by the 1970s they could claim one-third of the vote, by far the most powerful communist party in Western Europe.

Threatened, the dominant conser­vative Christian Democrats began to make overtures about the PCI joining the government again. The most lucid critic of this proposed alliance, known as il compromesso storico, was the great Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia. He had been elected to the Palermo City Council in 1974 as an independent with communist backing. He tried to raise such pragmatic issues as the lack of water and elementary sanitation in the poor quarters of his city. But the grand design of il compromesso, he was informed by the communists, required that such disruptive local concerns be shelved for the time being.

Sciascia likened the Italian government’s tactics to Tolstoy’s portrayal of General Kutuzov in War and Peace: resisting all pressures to confront Napoleon’s army head on, the general let the French destroy themselves in the attrition of a Russian winter. Now the communists, warned Sciascia, were being lured into a wasteland of cooperation with conservative forces that eventually would lead to their own desruction.

In the end the Italian Communist Party imploded. In 1991 it split into two separate parties; one social democrat, the other Marxist.

Both subsequently re-split and formed alliances with other parties. Napolitano, whom I witnessed arguing with protesters 30 years ago, was a leader of the reformist party. His has been a long march, from an apologist for the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 to the largely ceremonial position as president of Italy today: a “red” cherry atop a very sticky capitalist cake.

Will this be the fate of the SACP?

Bryan Rostron

Bryan Rostron

Bryan Rostron's previous novel, My Shadow, was commended for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He is the author of Till Babylon Falls, a non-fiction account of Robert McBride and the 1986 Magoo Bar Bombing, which Anthony Sampson described as, "of political and historic importance". Rostron has written for, among others, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Spectator, The New Statesman, and Private Eye. Read more from Bryan Rostron

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