Stalin claimed that communists are people of a special stuff, a special mould. This idea of moral superiority, of a sort of party exceptionalism lasted a long time, even in parties that no longer resembled the glorious Bolshevik Party of the Soviet Union. The anthropological “diversity” from others continued to be a founding myth, and was at the same time a millstone around its neck, even for the Italian Communist Party (PCI). This does not mean that there were no personalities with a special temperament.
Three very recently published books are dedicated to personalities of this kind. Vittorio Vidali. Vita di uno stalinista (1916-56), Il Mulino, written by Patrick Karlsen from Trieste University; Emilio Sereni, l’intellettuale e il politico edited by Giorgio Vecchio, Carocci Editore; and Aldo Natoli. Un comunista senza partito by Ella Baffoni and Peter Kammerer, Edizioni dell’Asino. Three formidable men, men of integrity, but each different from the other, none one-dimensional.
I met some of them and also up close. Sereni had summoned me from Milan to work with him at the Botteghe Oscure (headquarters of the Italian Communist Party) when I wasn’t yet twenty years old. I was fascinated by his immense and encyclopaedic culture, by his position as a high-ranking official of the PCI and the Liberation Committee for Northern Italy. I had read his biography written by his wife Marina (Xenia Silberberg). I went to visit him at his home in the Roman district of Monteverde Nuovo. I was amazed by how it was overflowing with books and cassettes on which he recorded classical music in the same obsessive and systemic way in which he cut out and filled out millions of reading cards, on very thin rectangles of tissue paper. But even more, I was struck by his tender affection for one of his little daughters, who was playing in a room also filled with books, those entirely on the subject of China. He also had a lot of humour. I was attracted and at the same time alarmed by the slightly excessive self-confidence there was in everything he did and said.
I also met Vidali. He too, as did Sereni, liked to describe himself as a “professional revolutionary”. He had in fact been a professional in action, even before entering politics, as an operational agent in the service of Stalin. In the Spanish Civil War, as a political commissar of the Fifth Regiment, “Commander Carlos” had been ruthless with the so-called Fifth Column, the “internal enemies” of the Republic, anarchists and Trotskyites accused of playing into the hands of Francisco Franco. It was said that a callus had formed between his thumb and forefinger due to his continuous execution of “traitors”. Paolo Franchi, author of The Sunset of the Future (Marsilio), in which he tells of perhaps slightly less formidable times, asked him once whether he was the one who had organized the first failed attack on Trotsky in Mexico. He leapt up and slammed his fist on the table: “If that attack had been organized by comrade Vidali, it would not have failed!!!”
Aldo Natoli too was tough and pure. He had fought with the Resistance and then as secretary of the PCI’s Roman Federation, disobeying orders from higher up, he had organised violent actions after the attack on Togliatti in July 1948. But he says he never had a weapon “neither in his hand nor in his pocket.” I don’t think Sereni had either. But when one day I asked him who was responsible for the killing of Giovanni Gentile, he replied: “Don’t worry; it was I who gave the order, as vice-president of the Liberation Committee.”
They were all three firm Stalinists, including Natoli, who, when expelled with the Manifesto Group, had indeed been critical of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, but was in love with something that was perhaps even worse, Mao’s China and Cultural Revolution. They were men of other times, terrible times. Men who took sides, who believed deeply, perhaps too much, in what they did. They put the “cause” (socialism, workers, progress, the future and the Party as the means to achieve it) before anything else. Sereni and Vidali’s faith was not undermined by the fact that they both came very close to being killed by Stalin. The same also happened to Berlinguer. He was also a product of those times. After a serious car accident in Bulgaria he told Macaluso that he thought it was the Soviets who had tried to kill him. But to avoid political repercussions, he didn’t tell anyone else, not even his brother.
That is the sort of people they were, people who kept things to themselves. A few years ago Sereni’s daughter Clara, who became a writer, and unfortunately recently passed away, told me that her father had scolded Giorgio Amendola for relaxing and saying too much, revealing too many intimate things in his books.
And yet Amendola was his great friend. Sereni had a particular bond with the group of “Neapolitans”, the city of his political formation (even if at the time no one in the PCI would ever have dreamt of claiming membership in a “regional” group, for example of Sardinians, or Sicilians, or… Tuscans). He respected the clarity of mind shown by the engineer Gerardo Chiaromonte. He spoke to me with affection about a very young Giorgio Napolitano who, immediately after the war, went to the station to wash down with a hosepipe the scugnizzi who would be sent to live with families in Emilia. So much for immigrant minors landing in Lampedusa. “Some of those street children would get into all kinds of trouble; they stole, impregnated the daughters of the families hosting them…”
Fanatics? But fanatics who understood politics. People who lived for their own political party, but also knew how to think differently, even disagreeing with the boss, and also able to respect those who had different ideas. You find this hard to believe? Sereni spent a lifetime studying and defending small-scale farms, while Stalin had exterminated his kulaks. Above all, he theorized the absolute value of “political initiative”, such as the one that led Togliatti to form a government first with General Badoglio and then with De Gasperi. I do not think he would have turned up his nose at the formation of a PD-5 Stars government.
Nostalgia for that kind of party? Of course not. But maybe a little. With caution. The conviction of being genetically, morally superior to other parties can be a resource. But it is also a form of self-deception. It risks fuelling fanaticism. And, above all, it makes it more difficult to implement politics, to interact with others. Party “exceptionalism” can be as existential as religious “exceptionalism” (my religion is the real one) or as much as a sense of national superiority. (“American exceptionalism”, Russian, Chinese and Israeli exceptionalism and so on, not to mention Germany’s Sonderweg in the first half of the last century). The man who drew my attention to this “genetic” defect of the Party to which we both belonged at the time with conviction, was my friend Napoleone Colajanni, who had joined the PCI led by Togliatti because Macaluso and Bufalini had assured him that he could continue to think with his own mind, and then left when it was led by Occhetto to move in the opposite direction of the pure and the tough.
A version of this article was published by La Repubblica on October 2nd 2019.
Pictured: Spanish artist Pablo Picasso looks at a huge picture of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin 01 November 1949 in Rome during the Congress of the Peace’ supporters (INTERCONTINENTALE / AFP)
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