January 31, 2021

Centenary of the Communist Party of Italy

M A Baby

THE Communist Party of Italy was founded on January 21, 1921. The October Socialist Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent formation of the Communist International in 1919 under the leadership of V I Lenin inspired and creates the atmosphere for setting up of communist parties in different parts of the world. The Communist parties of China, South Africa, Spain, Portugal etc were all set up in the year 1921.

The centenary of the CP of Italy coincides with the 130th anniversary of Antonio Gramsci, one of the most celebrated ideologues of the Communist movement after V I Lenin. It is the duty of communists and progressive forces the world over to discuss and study the history of the CP of Italy and the life and thoughts of its most famous leader Antonio Gramsci.

The CP of Italy was established following the differing perceptions over the ideological and organisational moorings of the Italian Socialist Party (which was in existence since 1892) in its 17th Congress in Livorno. The irreconcilable debates led to a split facilitating the birth of the CP of Italy. The leadership for this was given by the 30-year old Communist leader Antonio Gramsci from Turin along with Amadeo Bordiga, and others.

Benito Mussolini who captured power in October 1922 persecuted communists and democratic forces indiscriminately. A number of communists and others were arrested in 1923 and put behind bars.

The Party paper, L Unita, under the editorship of Gramsci played a key role in the organiSational growth of the CP of Italy and strengthening its reputation among the people. Gramsci was elected as the general secretary of the Party in 1924. He was elected to parliament also.

Gramsci advanced the strategy of developing a broad platform in the fight against fascism. This line was approved by the Leon Congress of the CP of Italy, held in January 1926. It can be noted that Georgi Dimitrov’s strategy of forming a broad united front in the fight against fascism was already tested in Italy under Gramsci’s initiative a decade ago. The 7th Congress of Communist International in 1935 is famous for the debate on this, initiated and summed up by the legendary Bulgarian communist, Dimitrov, who was the secretary general of CI.

Antonio Gramsci was arrested along with other comrades in 1926 by the fascist government of Mussolini on fabricated charges. The banning of the CP of Italy also happened at the same time.  The arrest and subsequent torture was undertaken despite him being a parliament member and physically challenged. The prosecutor while concluding his argument in the court demanded that ‘for 20 years we should not allow his brain to work’. The judge of the fascist rule obediently awarded 20 years imprisonment for Gramsci, ignoring the absence of any evidence against him. The fact that the cruel torture, abominable jail conditions or censorship failed to prevent his brain from functioning is an inspiring fact. Widely read and studied Prison Notebooks of Gramsci is a testimony to this.  

These writings provide great insight into the theory and praxis of scientific socialism in the Italian conditions. According to some progressive thinkers it is the most creative application of Marxism, next to Lenin’s, in the twentieth century.

The CP of Italy had a decisive influence in shaping the contours of the Italian politics for a long time through its protracted struggles against fascism by organising workers, farmers, youth, women and students. In 1948, the Party could garner 31 per cent of the votes in the chamber of deputies. It was improved to 34.4 per cent in 1976. The same influence prevailed up to 1987, with intermittent rise and fall in the vote percentage. The vote share of the party in the senate over the same period was 30.8 per cent in 1948, 33.8 in 1976 and 28.3 in 1987. The CP of Italy joined the government after the Second World War from 1944 to 1947. The Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti was deputy prime minister in the Ivanoe Bonomi (a reformist socialist leader) government.

However the Party failed to retain, let alone improve its vote share and mass influence after the setbacks in East Europe and former USSR. The Italian Communist Party which has a rich heritage of revolutionary struggles, anti-fascist resistance and significant popularity, disintegrated in 1991. It is now split into three organisations, namely Party of Re-foundation, Italian Communist Party and Party of Italian Communists.

There are many reasons for the weakening of the Communist Party of Italy including the setbacks of the socialist experiments in Eastern Europe and USSR and the ideological deviations which had engulfed the party even before. The communists had gained acceptance among the people on account of the great sacrifices, sincerity and truthfulness shown by them during their struggles against fascism and their struggles on livelihood issues of the people. This was reflected in the continuous electoral support they gained for a long period. However, apart from other factors, the parliamentary deviations which developed in the party and the ideological erosion which occurred led it  on the path of liquidation.

The following observation made by Eric Hobsbawm (in How to Change the World) is pertinent in this context:

‘Italy was a country in which, after 1917, several of the objective and even the subjective conditions of social revolution appeared to exist – more so than in Brittan and France and even, I suggest, than in Germany. Yet this revolution did not come off. On the contrary, fascism came to power. It was only natural that Italian Marxists should pioneer the analysis of why the Russian October Revolution had failed to spread to western countries, and what the alternative strategy and tactics of the transition to socialism ought to be in such countries. That, of course, is what Gramsci set out to do.’

The most unfortunate and perhaps relevant fact is that after the death of Gramsci under tragic circumstances in 1937, the leadership of the Italian Communist Party could not follow up the example of objective analysis with scientific precision and accuracy modelled by Gramsci. Even more, they became victims of serious ideological deviations in course of time. At one time, under the leadership of Enrico Berlinguer, the party talked of a “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats, the then dominant party of the ruling classes.

Only a communist party that is continuously engaged in self-criticism and scientific analysis of objective conditions without ideological deviations can properly use the opportunities for great advances or social revolution, thrown up by favourable objective conditions. Any deviations and inaccuracies while undertaking the difficult task of organising all deprived and exploited sections such as workers, peasants, agricultural labourers, students, youth and women, together into a united revolutionary battalion, could lead to setbacks and stagnation.  This is true for all communist parties.

While observing the historic landmarks of communist parties, it is not enough for those who dream about a brave new world free from exploitation and oppression to celebrate the advancements in the past or lament over the setbacks in the later stages. We need to enquire in depth and breadth to find accurate scientific answers to important questions. For example, how is it that the capitalist system which is inherently anti-human and unnatural can somehow or the other outlive the deep crises created by it, one after the other? Despite the relative and indisputable successes of socialist experiments in different parts of the world (after admitting certain serious flaws even in such experiments), USSR and East Europe could not outlive setbacks? (though these are relatively advanced countries when compared with non European countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America) Why is it that, efforts for creating an egalitarian society under communist and workers parties in countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba are surviving in backward continents of Asia and Latin America in a significant manner?

CPI(M) has been relentlessly trying to find credible answers to such questions, especially since its 14th Congress held in 1992.  However, lot more needs to be done on those lines.

Antonio Gramsci is a prominent communist leader and ideologue whose writings would be important in throwing light for such studies. Gramsci used to quote the following as his favourite dictum ‘pessimism of intellect and optimism of will’. In darker days like ours, his conviction in the ultimate victory of revolutionary forces provides us with bright rays of hope.