The Ambiguous Legacy of the Historic Left

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 5, 2011

That ‘unforgettable’ year of 1956, as Pietro Ingrao has called it, marked a genuine watershed in the history of the PCI. As the first cracks appeared in the Soviet Party’s facade, Togliatti pronounced ominously upon certain ‘dangers of bureaucratic degeneration’ in the USSR, vigorously denouncing all the while the rebellious workers of Poznan and Budapest as tools of reaction (Bocca 1973: 618; Ajello 1979: 389-90; Togliatti 1979: 141). Formally committing the party to the ‘Italian road to socialism’ it had followed for years, Togliatti also used the occasion to stamp out those insurrectionalist tendencies that lingered on within the PCI (Montaldi 1971: 369). Firmly embedded in a Stalinist matrix, such elements constituted in their own distorted manner what little that remained of the PCI’s original class politics. A whole layer of middle-ranking cadre, who viewed Khrushchev with suspicion – not for complicity in Stalin’s tyranny, but for having dared criticise him at all – found themselves slowly eased from positions of responsibility. The 8th Party Congress ushered a new levy of future leaders into the Central Committee, as an even greater ‘renovation’ occurred in the PCI’s important federal committees, with the overwhelming majority of Komitetchiki henceforth party members of less than a decade’s standing (Ajello 1979: 427). Whilst the most prominent of the older ‘hards’ managed, in exchange for their silence on current policy, to remain within the PCI’s leading bodies, the small number of militants and functionaries who objected to the new regime were simply driven out of the party (Peragalli 1980).

Thus, if PCI membership would decline overall by the end of the decade, with a noticeable loss of liberal intellectuals disenchanted more with international events than the party’s domestic policies, there was to be no exodus by rank-and-file Communists like those which devastated Communist parties in the English-speaking world. Indeed, when the PCI did emerge from its uncertainties it was to do so as a much-invigorated force, the correctness of its postwar course as a national-popular ‘new party’ largely confirmed in the leadership’s eyes (Asor Rosa 1975: 1622).

For the other major party of the left, by contrast, 1956 would be experienced as a fundamental break. Always a strange political creature, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) had been born anew in the final days of fascism. At that time its axis appeared decisively to the left of other Western Socialist parties, although the diversity of groupings within it lent a certain erratic bent to its political direction. Led by Pietro Nenni, Giuseppe Saragat and RodoIfo Morandi, its actions in the immediate aftermath of the war involved a juggling act. Vowing a continuing commitment to its close relationship with the PCI through the ‘unity of action’ pact sealed in the Popular Front period, the PSI also attempted to establish an identity independent of the Communist Party. Encouraged by its showings in the first postwar elections, the emphasis at first was placed upon ‘autonomy’, a notion that bore various connotations within the party. For some it represented aspirations to the mantle of ‘revolutionary’ party let fall by the moderate Communists; for others, it meant the construction of a mass social democratic party along British or German lines. In early 1947, midst the growing climate of the Cold War, the Socialist Party’s reformist wing split away on an explicitly anti-Communist platform, a section of the party’s left in tow; months later, the left parties were expelled from government. Both events were to have an enormous impact upon the majority of Socialists, winning a growing audience for those who saw the supreme political division as that between a socialist East and revanchist West, and any attempt to evolve a ‘third way’ merely a capitulation to imperialism. Following a brief period of nonalignment under the rule of a centre faction, the party’s traditional critical support for the Soviet Union blossomed into support tout court. Indeed, by the outbreak of the Korean War, Nenni could be heard proclaiming his close identification with the USSR in the ‘struggle for peace’, and Morandi publicly dedicating himself to the Herculean task of cleansing the party of all traces of social democracy’s corrupting influence (Libertini 1957; Vallauri 1978; Benzoni 1980: 33-70; Foa 1980: 270-81).

More than any other individual, Rodolfo Morandi embodied both the grandeur and misery of the Socialist Party left in the immediate postwar period. Its dominant figure both intellectually and politically, Morandi had first come to prominence not only as the author of an important study of Italian large-scale industry, but also as a leading domestic opponent of fascism. A convert to Marxism from the dynamic liberal-socialist circles of the 1920s, Morandi, like many left socialists of the interwar period, had devoted considerable energy to finding an authentic revolutionary ‘third way’ between bolshevism and social democracy. In this he paid particular attention to the vicissitudes of the USSR, which he judged from a viewpoint much influenced by Rosa Luxemburg’s own brief but sharp pronouncements of 1918. Dubious of the statist nature of ‘socialism in one country’, Morandi reserved his greatest criticisms for the practice of class-party relations developed by the Comintern. Like many others in the left wing of the PSI, Morandi considered the 1921 split with the Communists a grave mistake, and looked forward to an eventual reconciliation between the two major tendencies of the Italian left. At the same time, he also understood that class unity could never be reduced to the fusion of party apparatuses: only if the dangers of substitutionism were confronted and defeated, he argued, would PSI-PCI reunification be feasible. In his councillist vision, the party was only an instrument – necessary but not sufficient – in the service of working-class unity. The revolution could be expected to usher in not a party-state, but a system of popular rule based on the democratic organs of the masses themselves (Agosti 1971: 173-83,278-90).

If such was the theory, Morandi’s subsequent efforts to realise it were uniformly disappointing. During the Resistance he pinned considerable hope upon the Comitati di Liberazione Nazionale (Committees for National Liberation) organised in the Centre-North, but most of these bodies soon revealed themselves to be little more than miniature parliaments, susceptible to all the wheeling and dealing of party politics. Those committees formed in the factories seemed, by contrast, to hold greater promise, being often dominated by Communist and Socialist militants with a class perspective. After the important role that the factory organisations played in the struggle against the German occupation, the Communist leadership pushed successfully for the committees’ dissolution. In the words of the party historian Manacorda, PCI leaders were frightened that such militants might go ‘so far in the course of the insurrection as to expropriate the capitalists and establish cooperative management of the works’ (quoted in Ellwood 1985: 231). Instead the committees were replaced with ‘management councils’ which Morandi, as Minister of Industry in the second De Gasperi cabinet, did everything in his power to encourage. All things to all people, these jOint councils of workers and employers quickly proved themselves to be no more than mechanisms to encourage working-class participation in postwar reconstruction (Craveri 1977: 184-207). Unable to extricate his earlier councillist notions from the poverty of such experiences, expelled from office by the Christian Democrats’ anti-Communist offensive, Morandi sought to keep faith by embracing the aggressively Stalinist view of the world advanced by the newly formed Cominform. It was a step which marked the advent of Italian socialism’s ‘ten winters’; not until 1953 brought with it the death of Stalin would an inkling of light appear at the end of the ‘Cold War tunnel’ (Fortini 1977: 18).

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that a great part of the PCI’s ability to weather the storms of 1956 lay with the complexity of its postwar culture. Blending the great native tradition of historicism with a resolutely ‘popular’ approach to social reform, the party succeeded in winning many self-perceived ‘organic intellectuals’ to its banner after 1945. Such a recipe for success may well have been concocted from equal parts of Croce and Stalin, as Fortini once quipped (Ajello 1979: 113). But above all it was flexible, able under Togliatti’s auspices to move from an enthusiastic but superficial embrace of Zhdanov in the late 1940s to the accommodation of certain aspects of the liberal critique of Stalinism by the middle of the following decade. Not so that of the Socialist Party: its official Marxism-Leninism of the early 1950s, the product of Morandi’s attempts at ‘Bolshevisation’, was rote learnt, doctrinal and arid, manifesting itself in conformity to the Soviet line and a rigid internal regime which stifled dissent. As a consequence, the arrival of 1956 came as a genuine shock for the PSI. For the majority of the dominant left faction in particular, the debunking of some of the myths surrounding Stalin and ‘realised socialism’ served only to puncture their own revolutionary pretensions, leaving them without any mask to cover a politics which was as reformist – if nowhere as coherent – as that of their Communist rivals.

The early 1950s had already seen the PSI lose support within the working class, gradually but inexorably, to the Communists. With Morandi’s death in 1955, his efficient ‘Leninist’ apparatus fragmented into a number of competing machines, each vying to determine the Socialist Party’s course. While some functionaries continued to genuflect towards Moscow, the more pragmatic elements around Nenni began to look for new waters in which to fish (Foa 1980: 268-9). Such opportunities were not long in coming. In the time-honoured Italian tradition of trasformismo, Nenni adroitly exploited the repression of Polish workers in Poznan to open a dialogue with Saragat, leader of the breakaway Social Democrats. By October of 1956, Nenni had succeeded in changing the 22-year old ‘unity of action’ pact with the PCI to one of ‘consultation’. When the 32nd PSI Congress was held six months later, Nenni moved into a commanding position within the organisation’s leadership. From here he began to explore a number of possible courses of action, culminating in the early 1960s with the Socialists’ return to a coalition government with the Christian Democrats (Della Mea 1967: 90-2).