The Prescience of Lucio Magri

By Darko Suvin

Lucio Magri. The Tailor of Ulm: Communism in the Twentieth century, translated by Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 2011).

Magri, born in 1932, was a leading member and, together with Rossana Rossanda, the most prominent theoretician of the Manifesto group which was kicked out of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1970. He rejoined the PCI with the small Left PdUP party in 1984 and fought against its harakiri in 1989. He was then a deputy in Parliament of the small Rifondazione Comunista party, and retired in 2004 to write this final book. Among his copious journalistic and analytical works, this is, as it were, his political testament. He committed assisted suicide in Switzerland in 2011. Il Manifesto still exists as the only general daily in Italy that can be read without revulsion.

In the Introduction plus 21 chapters Magri weaves together three strands: a chronological history of “some decisive events” in and around the PCI from 1944 to its suicide; the world political and economic context; and theoretical analyses or at least doubts and questions, which culminate in the impressive 45-page Appendix, written in 1987 as the position paper of the Left at the final PCI congress.

I must be brief about the well-known international context of the Cold War, USSR degeneration, and the constant US pressures which were especially virulent in Italy, ruled de facto by three forces: the Catholic Church, inner political forces, and the US ambassador who set the limits of what could be done (notably, not to let the too strong and dangerous communists into the government after 1948). No doubt, Magri has interesting views about the world context: he pins the blame for the Cold War squarely on the USA and stresses the real danger of nuclear holocaust say up to 1961; he singles out the major rigidities and stupidities first of the 3rd International, including Lenin’s attacking focus on the “centrist” Kautsky and Austromarxism, predicated on a non-existent revolutionary imminence in Europe, and then the much heavier ones of Stalin’s forced collectivisation, 1930s’ terror waves, and the permanent cultural deformation into apathetic masses and cynical bureaucracy; but he gives short shrift to the thesis that fascisms in general were simply caused by bolshevism – certainly the Italian one was not. However, like the whole PCI, Magri overestimates the positive role of the USSR as “the ‘driving force’ of world history” at least in the late 1950s, since its usefulness was by then confined to being a power alternative to the USA for countries such as Egypt and Cuba, with many serious mistakes right up to the entry into Afghanistan. He rightly approves of Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence” thesis, but the critique of his “destalinisation” is brief and tepid in view of what I would call a class revocation of the CPSU alliance with the Russian plebeian masses. Finally, Magri has much sympathy for Mao’s slogan “to rebel is justified” but concludes that Deng’s line, while meeting great pragmatic success, was a Thermidor or counter-revolution. This strand is only touched upon as background, and the only factual mistakes I found in the book belong to it.

Magri rejects the two dominant readings of PCI history: that it was from 1945 on “a social-democratic party without saying or perhaps even knowing it”; or that it was, despite its role in the resistance and in laying the fundaments for democratising Italy, “a prolonged hand of USSR policy and intimately tied to its model.” Neither of them can explain the most relevant facts of this history; both obliterate what was unique and interesting in it. Rather, the PCI tried seriously, though imperfectly and fitfully, to tread a “third road” toward socialism: a fusion of reforms within a parliamentary democracy with bitter class struggles from below and an explicit critique of capitalism.

The historical overview begins with Togliatti’s 1944 return to Italy from Moscow and his appeal for a wide antifascist coalition and resistance. The PCI’s strong role in these and its subsequent correct (if not quite clarified) slogan of a new – that is, non-insurrectional – way to socialism resulted in a mass party of two levels: a backbone of professional cadre, at first coming mostly from partisans, schooled in Stalin’s Short History of the Soviet CP(b), much Engels, some Lenin and Marx, and much Togliatti; and the other members, of whom a good many were activists, comprising leading intellectuals and defectors from the high and middle bourgeoisie as well as many workers from industry and agriculture. These proletarians were at the beginning “often without full elementary schooling…, who learned writing in the Party sections, read a first book, got an idea of national history, and fascinated by a new passion filled the city squares each evening in spontaneous discussion groups to get a sense of things.” It was confronted with formidable and unslackening pressures from enemy bosses: a “largely incompetent and parasitic bourgeoisie,” the Vatican and its capillary organisations from each village to universities, the US as world military and economic power, and their unanimous apparati of mass persuasion in a pitiless Cold War. The PCI as an original “people’s party” was quite different from the Leninist vanguard idea. At its height it comprised 2.5 million people including half a million youngsters, most of whom took their bicycle or scooter to the Party session, to read the daily Unità, attract new members, eat perhaps chitterlings or play boccia (bowls) in the trade union hall, a part of that “counter-society.” In 1956, after Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” Togliatti defined the Party strategy somewhat further as “structural reforms” won by struggle from below and enshrined in the legal system empowered by a progressive Constitution.

Magri argues that the death of this vital 1960s’ PCI as a coherent organisation was avoidable. That decade was still open. He divides it into 1960-65 and “the long 1968” lasting nine years. In both cases, amid a short-range crisis, “the PCI could or would not take a leading or directly encouraging role,” but it was clearly in some ways involved, influenced by and influencing them, and had to bear their breakdowns. The first half of the ‘60s saw the “economic miracle,” based on a mixed economy of independent State corporations and private ones, a technological leap forward into Fordism in some industries such as steel and petrochemicals, and extra-profit from relatively low wages (in 1969 only 6% higher than in 1938 while productivity had risen over 50%), allowing for competitive exports. The workers and peasants paid the bill for it and profited least, responding with a wave of new struggles from below through the very independent Left CGIL trade union strengthened by full employment, and as a rule bypassing political parties. Nonetheless the new prosperity, however relative and one-sided, gave rise to consumerism, with mass acquisitions of small FIAT cars, home appliances, and TV sets transmitting a strictly censored RAI monopoly.

Magri gives a stimulating sketch of this Italian neo-capitalism and its fusion of modernisation and backwardness, as well as of the bitter and uncoordinated protests of 1968-74 – first by workers, accompanied by white-collar employees and technicians, and then by students and a new, strongly leftist young generation smarting especially from the semi-feudal inefficiency of universities – that wanted to bring about a new social order from below. He concludes that the PCI missed the opportunity to understand the synergy of innovations from above and from below in new needs and life-styles, and to insist on a political restructuring based on flexible planning and tax policies, strategic public investments, and workers’ participation in decisions. However, its understanding depended on really listening to the protests from below by reforming the party’s decision-making process. This seems to me the key to answering the central question: “how was it possible that a force that came to ripeness in the 60s and that followed an autonomous and ambitious project… began to decay and finally dissolved itself?”

I shall slight the well-known developments of the Berlinguer era, faced with the post-1973 crisis which destroyed the last hindrances to full capitalist restructuring, and made even “keynesianism in one country” impossible, as discovered early on by Mitterrand. Magri rightly condemns Berlinguer’s early “historic compromise” thesis as a mistake but finds his last years very promising and unfortunately cut short. Not until the PCI dissolved itself in 1989, under the nondescript Occhetto, did its ill-prepared left wing at last dissent, much too late. As a result, by the end of the 1980s around 800,000 former members despaired of politics (my estimate would be closer to 2 million, or four fifths of PCI at its height). As to those remaining in politics, to the above question one could then add a corollary: How come that the middle cadre (e.g. the 1990s PD leaders coming from the Communist Youth, such as the ineffable D’Alema and Veltroni) were not even socialist, never mind communist, but turned into full-blown Atlantists and neo-liberals?

Here we enter into Magri’s theoretical strand, to my mind the most interesting one. Not slighting the pioneering historical insights from his privileged oscillation between marginal insider and marginal outsider, we find here important lessons for our present and future. Except for the final Appendix, to which I will return, this strand is formulated not as an extensive argument but as comments on concrete historical dilemmas, which has its advantages and limits. But its core seems to me the discussion of the two “genomes” or determining inheritances of the PCI, the Gramsci and the Stalin genome.

“Gramsci(anism) as genome” is his influence through writings – and through a few top leaders who were his collaborators – on “the gradual shaping of the identity and strategy of Italian communism,” rendered possible by a conscious and risky operation of salvage and publication of his prison writings masterminded by Togliatti, who is here defended from accusations of having bent that publication to tactics of the moment, though he naturally had his own slant on them, did not emphasize their divergence from Stalinism, and confessed late on that Gramsci had been reduced to the PCI needs while he “thought much further.” But the founding of an independent and very competent Gramsci Institute eventually rectified that bending, and without Togliatti we would have had no Gramsci as a worldwide cultural authority. His genome in the PCI consists for Magri of two main chromosomes or foci: on the 19th-century Risorgimento as “an unfinished revolution” without agrarian reform and mass participation but with a compromise between the bourgeoisie and parasitic rent-gatherers; and on the polemic against vulgar Marxism which meant “a relative autonomy and weight of the ‘superstructure’, thus major attention to the role of intellectuals, political parties, and State apparatus.” However, his Americanism and Fordism and his passion for the Turin consigli was in the decisive decades backgrounded, which led to a refusal to face the huge modernising changes in neo-capitalism as well as to a party far from the “collective intellectual” Gramsci found necessary as a partner for movements from below.

Stalinism as genome is my own diagnosis of the directly contrary strand in the PCI, transmitted to it by the founding leaders returned in 1944 from Moscow and the whole experience of the Third International in the preceding two decades. Its fulcrum lay in Togliatti’s contradiction between a flexible strategy in Italian power struggles and a “bolshevik” discipline from above on the party cadre, though without Stalin’s paranoia and terror. Indoctrination in Manicheanism was of course largely due to Cold War pressures but became a forma mentis in the ruling majority, blocking definition and development of the “third way.” The ideological rigidity of the leadership persisted through the Khrushchev years, stymieing understanding of developments in the USSR and its bloc and privileging compromises with bourgeois parties in Italy over dialogue with workers and students. This included a strong defence of the USSR, stressing its undoubtedly real achievements in industrialisation, culture, and international relations (as in Togliatti’s 1956 article), but excluding the at least as important black zones.

The unhappiness in PCI cadres, including a majority of the Central Committee, became clear from 1961 on, yet it was never allowed to grow into an open debate, remaining encoded in articles and speeches opaque to the party as a whole. The Manifesto group was first marginalised and then excluded for the sin of publicly debating what everybody at the top knew was at least a problem. A stronger participatory democracy might have led to an openness like that of the Bolshevik party between 1917 and 1921, with real currents, competing programs, and democracy from below (as Magri puts it: “for a responsible pluralism and not rigid fractions”). But most important, without it the PCI had no ear for similar deep yearnings in the youth and the workers: only some intellectuals grew interested in Yugoslav self-management, or in Mao’s initial impulse in the Cultural Revolution, or in the Polish debates about planning. The self-censorship of the non-Stalinist Left at the PCI top, often identified with Ingrao, amounted to sterility, for it never held even informal internal discussions but left the “Amendola” bureaucratic Right as victors by default. On the international scene, this also meant that the PCI had little to say about the Sino-Soviet conflict except to try and minimise it. And inside Italy, at a time of huge social clashes in the mid-60s, the number of worker and young members in the Party fell drastically. The openness of many party intellectuals to “Western” Marxism, from Marcuse and Sweezy through the UK New Left to Mallet and Gorz, remained without political consequence, while obversely the badly digested models of Che or Mao led some exasperated young people into counterproductive armed groupuscules.

What was the alternative, say of an updated Gramscianism for the 1980s-90s? An articulate statement of it is to be found in the 1987 Appendix, “A New Communist Identity.” It asks “what remains from the strong identity of Marxism and the Left in general” at a time when industrialism loses ground to services and non-material goods, when productivity depends ever more on organisation and consumption rather than on general labour or capital, and when this system is exported worldwide from metropolitan countries as an international division of labour corroding the poorer countries? The working population is being fragmented into different categories, and a huge cultural offensive has persuaded the political Left, as well as the peace, ecology, and women’s movements, that capitalism is no longer the problem but a necessary horizon. On the other hand, today’s technologies and access to information make possible both reduction of work and decentralisation of power – that is, “today the idea of communism in its original and richer meaning of emancipation is for the first time historically mature,” without the fixation on economistic progress and on the State as the only alternative to a dominant market. It is what Brecht in the 1950s called the possible habitability of our planet.

Magri then discusses ecology (”Development and Nature”) and “Superfluity and Poverty, Needs and Consumption” in two overviews that could still today provide a useful basis for updating. In the first section he stresses that capitalism cannot deal with the environment, since that needs long-term planning and a distance from the profit motive. In the second one, he argues that qualitative instead of quantitative production is within reach but foreclosed in favour of a “production of illusions and of the ephemeral” that denies the needs of health, education, or space planning. He then focuses on work, whose subsumption under and metamorphosis into capital is the determining Novum or novelty of the epoch, and the mobilisation of whose energies has led to the successes of the 20th century as in Japan (and some sectors of Italy). The redistribution of labour is to him the central social theme, and he concludes that even in a post-industrial future the class conflict between labour and capital will persist, if in new ways, having to do with the quality and quantity of employment and with the possible prospect of liberation both of and from work. Pragmatically, the destiny of workers will depend less on trade unions and more on political projects and instruments involving the State and the strategies of technological development and of education. “Is this [aspect] of a radical but up to now barely sketched Marxist critique of capitalism – the liberation of human labour from its commodity character – not a sufficiently solid basis for a new communist identity?”

“The Helplessness of the Sovereign” is rightly the longest Appendix section. The sovereign is of course Rousseau’s “people,” and its historical avatars in all movements from below within capitalism, culminating in revolutions from the French to the Chinese. So this is a reconsideration of democracy as real political freedom, “which is impossible as long as all citizens do not have a minimal education, income, and security.” The workers’ movement has since Marx traditionally fought both for liberal constitutional freedoms and for more radical and deeper forms of democracy. However, the social-democratic parties totally forgot about those deeper forms, while “really existing socialism” with its Party/States, total centralisation, and identification of dissent with class enemy led to a grave defeat, proving that “the full development of political democracy is not less but more important for socialism than it was for capitalism.” And today’s capitalism has for its structural precondition the irrelevance of politics, used as a hollow ritual for decisions reached by the new rulers, a small economic and technocratic oligarchy in the international economic and political centres, bereft of any democratic influence. This is a new world of direct global power by financial capital and multinational corporations, which would logically need an international opponent, “a collective political subject able to implement a long-range overall project… [with] a new political sovereign.” And that opponent would need a Gramscian party (or group of parties) as “stimulus and synthesis of a complex system of autonomous and permanent political movements.” This does not mean denying Lenin’s and Togliatti’s call for liaison between democracy and socialism. To the contrary, these two elements represent a necessary feedback: “Is this not a strong basis to re-establish a communist identity also for… institutions and politics?” The section ends, however, on a realistic note that the sociopolitical forces needed for this project are in a deep identity crisis, whose overcoming will require years or decades of rethinking.

Since the paper was written to counteract Occhetto’s defeatism, it ends with a discussion of “The Party Form.” In brief, Magri concludes that what is needed for real societal reforms is “an autonomous organised subject” able to change while acting, so that the Gramscian theme “of a mass party that is also a fighting party, a collective intellectual, cannot be laid ad acta.”

My overall judgment on this Appendix is that a new communist manifesto (to my mind much needed) could do worse than to incorporate it in an updated version. And the book as a whole is necessary reading for those who want to think about anticapitalist refounding (whether similar or different). We cannot, as with Brecht’s early flyer from Ulm, wait for several centuries. However, for an overall judgment on Magri it will be necessary to take into account also his articles and speeches, of which several volumes have recently been published. Probably Perry Anderson’s necrological conclusion is right: that Magri was the most prominent revolutionary intellectual in Europe able to think in harmony with the mass movements that came about during his lifetime.

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