The Gucci Communists
Paolo Fib della Torre
Perhaps it has something to do with the world-wide fashion for exorcism: in any case many leaders of opinion in Italy, led of course by the trendy bishops, believe that the Italian Communist Party has been purged of its devils. This result was not obtained by the use of the Cross of Christ. The symbols employed were those of middle-class respectability, of Western affluence. The Italian Communist leaders wear Gucci shoes, Pucci ties, Scotch House cashmeres, Aquascutum suits. Their manners are civilised, their conversation quiet and informed, and they get on famously with priests. They are polite, internationally-minded, well-travelled and well-read; on the surface they have nothing in common with the scruffy, dogmatic mandarins of the British left.
The leader of the Italian Communist Party comes from a good Sardinian family, and he still appears in the Italian equivalent of Debrett, Cavaliere Enrico Berlinguer, his name followed by a description of the family coat of arms. He holds, in fact, a hereditary knighthood which he has so far evinced not the least intention to renounce. His wife, a devoted Catholic, also belongs to the upper-middle-class establishment and goes to church every Sunday. Berlinguer and the other leaders of the Communist Party take pains to explain their devotion to the democratic system, and to Europe. Their delegation to the European Parliament is doing all it can to help the Common Market to work well.
This is why many leaders of the Christian Democratic Party, which is still closely linked with the Roman Catholic Church, believe that conditions are ripe for an alliance with the Communists. The compromesso storico — historic agreement — as it is known, has in fact already come about in some local government administrations where Communists collaborate with Christian Democrats.
The Communists are particularly keen to spread the compromesso storico, and they have even offered the Christian Democrats key jobs in the local government of Bologna, which they themselves control. This move is significant because Bologna has for some time been the shop window of the Communist Party, the example they use as showing their ability to provide a good administration. They have indeed a relatively good record in running the city, with fewer scandals and less nepotism than in many other important centres.
The willingness of the Communists to ally themselves with the Christian Democrats has evoked the enthusiastic response of many devoted Catholics in Italy, supported by large sections of the middle classes and many industrialists — who believe the new, Max Factorised face of the Communist Party betokens a willingness to control the trade unions and stop strikes. For lately the Italian Communists have seemed to be converted, not only to democracy and religion, but to capitalism and the mixed economy; they are in fact supporting the private sector more than the nationalised one. It has become fashionable in Italian society to be a Communist; the party can count on the support of many aristocrats and millionaires, and their sons.
All this makes it quite likely that Italy may become the first Common Market country with Communist participation in the government, especially as their new suave image actually helps them to be associated with law and order in the mind of a public increasingly fed up with growing disorder. Never mind that this disorder is overwhelmingly provoked and perpetrated by the extreme left; the Communist Party, under its beauty mask, has gone a long way towards becoming dissociated from urban guerrillas and other such lawbreakers.
In the last few weeks, however, people have started to realise that all this is rather too beautiful to be true. For one thing, it may become increasingly difficult for the moderate leaders of the party to ignore some of the traditional preoccupations of the left; there are signs, notably, that the Russians are becoming increasingly suspicious that the Italian Communists might revolt against orthodoxy in themanner of Tito.
But it is the Italian political scene which provides the main worry. Once the Communists have joined the government, for whom are the discontented going to vote? The cornpromesso storico is indeed still opposed by some formidable figures in the Christian Democratic Party like Sig Amintore Fanfani, but the chief organised opposition to it is the Movimento Sociale Italian o-Destra Nazionale. described by their opponents and by most of the press outside Italy as neo-fascists. They are particularly strong in the South of Italy.
The description 'Two-fascist' is at most a half-truth. Certainly an element in the party has connections with the former Fascist movement. But the MSI have merged with the Monarchist party, and attracted many discontented voters. Many left-wingers want to outlaw the MSI, but the way the left has been behaving in Portugal has made many Italians quite unconnected with the MSI wonder what other parties might later be banned if this dangerous precedent were to be set. For the moment, therefore, the left-wing consensus contents itself with pointing to those extremists the party does contain to discredit the MSI with the neo-fascist label. Political, tension has risen and a witch-hunt is under way which is at times extremely vicious.
For if the leftward movement in Italy has at the top level appeared bland, lower down it has become very ugly. Whether or not the right can be described as fascist, the centre is already occupied by the Communists, to the left of whom'are disparate groups of extremists some members of which are-psychopathically violent and nihilistic. With these the Communist Party maintains a state of shadow-boxing; every now and then expressing disapproval, it carefully refrains from doing anything concrete against them.
These extreme groups believe that crime is justified by politics; they both condone and . practise kidnapping. arson, bombing, and theft . and personal violence, all of which have become commonplace.
Of these groups the one called 'Lotta Continua' — Continuous Struggle — is perhaps the best known outside Italy, but the most powerful now seems to be the NAP (Nucleus of Proletarian Action). They follow the same' tactics as the Uruguayan Tupamaros, kidnapping judges, industrialists, politicians and members of their families, and asking astronomical sums of money for ransom. Two examples were a judge named Di Gennaro, released against the freeing of some left-wing extremists jailed for ordinary non-political crime; and a Roman jeweller, Bulgari, released against a very high ransom.
What the new, smooth, 'establishment' Communists do is to use their influence, and that of their friends, to hinder the police from moving against this political crime wave with any great determination; under this indirect protection the thugs have become bolder. Extremists of the NAP invaded the offices of the leader of the Christian Democrats for the Milanese region, imprisoned six members of his staff for hours and held a kangaroo court before which he was accused of sympathy with the 'silent majority.' By a miracle he is still alive. To the extreme left it is no longer only the members of the MSI who are fascists, but anyone who is not on their side, including the Liberals, the Social Democrats, those Christian Democrats who oppose the cornpromesso storico, and of course the police.
On one recent occasion in Milan three right-wing youths were violently attacked by twenty left-wing Students. One of the right-wingers had a revolver and shot one of the assailants. As a result of this, not only Milan but several other towns were in a state of siege for two days. Extremists of the left brutally beat a liberal student to the point of death, destroyed the offices of the right-wing magazine, Lo Specchio, and the headquarters of the Social Democrats, attacked the moderate newspaper, 11 Giorna/e, destroyed many bars and clubs
frequented by the MSI, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. They assaulted the police and destroyed many private cars.
Up to now the Communists have, of course, been immune to such assaults, but some of them are afraid that the extreme left may turn against them owing to the cornpromesso storico. There have already been verbal attacks against them in extreme left-wing papers, and the possibility of a confrontation is there, particularly since the socialists believe in appeasing the extreme left. What the Communists now want to avoid at any cost is the danger of losing their militants to the extreme left through the compromesso storico. They may, then, begin again to show their revolutionary teeth.
In the meantime the ordinary, non-political Italian faces a period of growing political violence and personal inconvenience and danger. The sight of the affluent revolutionaries bandying the phrases of violent revolution in surroundings of luxury and elegance, the radical chic-of the Mediterranean, is unlikely to improve his temper.
Paolo Fib o della Torre-is London correspondent of the Italian newspaper, 24 Ore
national control of any single union; their ceaseless activity earns them a top-level representation disproportionate to their rankand-file numerical strength; and this, combined with the broader corresponding non-Party socialists, so often tips the balance in favour of the militant line.
Although it has suffered some recent reverses, the strategy has achieved its greatest successes in the engineering union, in which the "Broad Left" has been the predominant tendency for eight years. The Communists' interest in industry is ultimately political in the desire to control the block votes which hold the key to Labour policy-making. Industrial power backed by political influence are the potent ingredients of the 'broad left' mixture, and in the eyes of the Communists the two are inseparable, for together they open up the road to socialism. .
'Left unity' has other dimensions, and George Orwell's remarks made thirty years ago, that "when the USSR is on good terms with Britain, the British Communists follow a 'moderate' line hardly distinguishable from that of the Labour Party" remain valid today in pointing to the connection between domestic and international aspects of unity. Now the Communist Party is less a tool of the Kremlin than it was during most of Orwell's lifetime. Before the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943 it was totally subservient to the whim and every doctrinal contortion of Soviet policy, but since then it has been able to assert a nominal independence.
working out its own path to socialism. But it has remained loyal to Moscow through the Cold War, Hungary, the Sin o-Soviet split and in detente; the party's disapproval of the invasion of Czechoslovakia was an exception, and its criticisms were less forthright than those of the Italian Communists.
General observance of the Moscow line does, however, admit the party to a vast interna tional club. Its officials frequently visit eastern European capitals and attend the conferences of the western parties, while in return the British receive delegations from overseas at their own congresses. International gatherings of all European Communist parties in recent years have emphasised •the unity of the left within individual states and between parties and their sympathisers in different countries. It would, however, be wrong — and it is a mistake the Institute for the Study of Conflict tends to make — to treat international Communism as a monolithic force, with one joint purpose controlled and directed by Moscow. Each of the western parties reflects, in the emphasis it places on the value of existing institutions or the respective roles of trade unions and parliaments, the prevailing traditions and problems of its own country. Easy comparisons between the character and political standing of British and Italian parties for example would therefore be superficial.
Unlike the latter, the British party has no expectations of sharing in government in the foreseeable future. It pins its long-term hopes on 'left unity' to compensate for its lack of direct popular appeal, creating an unstoppable force based on a Labour Party purged of its 'right wing' and supported by a Communist-dominated mass movement outside, together, moving to deal with economic crisis by carrying out an irreversible socialist programme. It is a scheme of revolution which dispenses with the prospect of an inevitably bloody uprising but in its ultimate ends is revolutionary nonetheless. Constitutionally it would entail the abolition of monarchy and 'Lords and the creation of a "new kind of parliament"; it would involve the removal of unsympathetic civil servants and senior police and army officers. Opposition would be met by ,the use of the masses' "organised strength," that is by force.
. Such theoretical designs, for that is what they remain, are an uneasy blend, of the Communists' spiritual origins of Marxist-Leninism and their desire to accommodate them
selves to quite different British traditions of peaceable change. These conflicting elements in British Communism have presented it with a problem of identity that it has never solved. Unable tc grasp the nettle of Soviet revolution and unable to carve a place for itself in the British political system it has been left with the worst of all worlds, as a sterile, rigid organisation remaining loyal to its one time masters in Moscow. and an electoral irrelevance condemned to the political wilderness. Its chosen escape route fron this dilemma, infiltration of the unions and the unity of the Left have created a paradoxical situation: its indirect influence has increased but the problem of its own independent identity and numerical weakness remains. The result has been to help strengthen a Labour Left but confirm its own inferiority.
Any immediate threat to democracy does not come primarily from the Communist Party. With other smaller revolutionary groups, the Communists remain under Britannia's bed and do not share it with her. Should, however, the bed collapse under the sheer weight of problems, those unfortunate enough to be trapped underneath will find themselves squashed beyond recognition. But what angry and deformed species may emerge from the chaos cannot be foreseen.
Peter Shipley is working on a book about revolutionary politics in Britain