By Outis Philalithopoulos, a ghost haunted by the mystery of the origins of modern political ideas.
I opened my previous post with a quote from Giorgio Gaber. Gaber is a rather unique figure – he got his start in the 50s and 60s with goofy songs like this one. He started to address social and political themes, and in the process invented a new genre (teatro-canzone, the “theater song”).
In 1991, he decided to talk about the the end of “really existing communism,” in a piece called “Some people were communists” (Qualcuno era comunista). It is a remarkable document, for at least three reasons:
- It is dense with pertinent observations about the culture of Italian communism, often with such attention to detail in the references that the piece is like a crash course in the political culture of Italy.
- If you listen to a live performance, he touches his audience’s emotions on so many levels, with the mood at times resembling the prelude to a riot before finally sublimating into inspired melancholy.
- He is not merely recounting a history, he is trying to give it meaning. He is identifying, or proposing a kernel: an image of what people who believed in communism believed in, or should have believed in – and expressing the hope that this kernel might somehow be salvageable.
What I will do in what follows is to provide most of the text, together with interspersed glosses and commentary. I have omitted some items for brevity and also rearranged some of the early items in order to bring out clusters with similar themes.
Why were different people communist?
Some were communists because they were born in Emilia.
Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany had regularly high percentages of communist voters.
Some were communists because grandpa, uncle, dad – not mom [laughter].
The part about “mom” is a knowing reference to a gender gap that is already remarked on in the French Revolution. It is not a proto-Bernie Bros polemic – I have seen the disparity linked to the greater involvement of women in the community life of Catholicism.
Some were communists because they drank wine and got emotional at the Parties of the People.
Some were communists because if you were worked in movies, you had to be, same with theater, same with art, same with literature.
Career could condition one’s political affiliation pretty strongly. I have similarly heard that Italian doctors were typically members of the Democrazia Cristiana.
Some were communists because they had been raised overly Catholic.
Some were communists because earlier they were fascists.
Some were communists because they believed that Russia was moving forward slowly, but surely.
Some were communists because they felt lonely.
Some were communists because they only watched RAI 3.
The major public networks, RAI 1-3, were parceled out among the major political groupings, with the Left getting RAI 3. We of course have nothing like this in America.
Some were communists to make their fathers angry.
Some were communists because they had been told to be.
Some were communists because they hadn’t been told everything [chuckling].
Gaber makes it clear to his audience that they should know certain less pleasant truths about historical communism.
Some were communists because they were so atheist that they needed another God.
Some were communists because they were so fascinated by factory workers that they wanted to be one.
Some were communists because they had had it up to here with being factory workers [cheering].
Some were communists because they wanted a raise.
Bread and butter issues…
Some were communists because [goofy academic voice]“Bourgeoisie, proletariat, class struggle, it’s simple!”
Some were communists because the revolution – today no, tomorrow maybe, but the day after tomorrow, definitely.
Some were communists because Berlinguer was a decent person [emotional cheering].
A sure applause line. There was in fact a major cult around Enrico Berlinguer, the secretary of the PCI from 1972-1984.
Some were communists because Andreotti was not a decent person [laughter and louder cheering].
Paolo Sorrentino went so far as to make a movie (Il Divo, 2008) about Andreotti, bribes, and the mafia.
Some were communists because it was fashionable, some on principle, some out of frustration.
Some were communists because they were more communist than other people.
Some were communists because of the great Communist Party [of Italy].
The PCI (Communist Party of Italy) was the most significant communist party in Europe. It dominated the Italian culture industry. It was also more independent from the USSR than, say, the French Communist Party.
Some were communists in spite of the great Communist Party [laughter].
However, it still had an orthodoxy that it enforced; the student movement of 1968 largely broke with the PCI.
Some were communists because there was no better option.
Some were communists because we have the worst Socialist Party in Europe [angry applause].
If you’re curious about this, do an Internet search on Bettino Craxi.
Some were communists because to find a government worse than ours, you have to go to Uganda.
Some were communists because they were sick of 40 years of incompetent Mafia-infested governments.
Meaning the postwar governments of the Democrazia Cristiana.
Some were communists because of Piazza Fontana, Brescia, Bologna station, the Italicus train, Ustica, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!
Can’t be explained briefly, search strategia della tensione.
The mood becomes very intense during this sequence.
Some were communists because those who were opposed were communists.
This one is fascinating. The idea is that rottenness in society was obvious, and yet the only people willing to take a stand against it were the Communists – and so regardless of what the PCI stood for, it could occupy that space.
Some thought they were communists and maybe were something else.
Some were communists because they dreamed of a kind of freedom different from the American kind.
Some were communists because they thought they could only be happy if others were too [cheering].
Can you imagine someone saying this in the US?
Some were communists because they needed a push toward something new, because they were willing to change every day, because they felt the need for a different ethic, because maybe it was just a push, a flight, a dream, an impetus, a desire to change things, to change life.
Some were communists because together with this impetus, they were more than themselves. Each person was like two persons in one. On one side, the individualized toil of everyday life, and on the other, the feeling of belonging to a species that wanted to take flight and truly change life.
No, no nostalgia. Maybe then as well, many had opened their wings like so many seagulls who were ultimately unable to fly.
And now? Now as well, we feel like two people: on the one hand the conformist who obsequiously navigates the squalor of his own daily survival, and on the other the seagull, no longer with even the intention of flight, because the dream has shriveled away.
Two wretchednesses within a single body.
The piece as rhetoric
The top-rated YouTube comment says, “First laughter – then goosebumps – then tears.”
Gaber follows a pattern that might have an official name, but that I call Vive le roi quand même. French royalists who were frustrated with the fecklessness of Louis XVI would open up about his shortcomings in discreet conversations, and then end by saying “Long live the king anyway!”
Gaber is willing to acknowledge all sorts of ways in which actual communism was imperfect or contingent or absurd. This builds his credibility, and yet it also makes his final move more forceful, as he refuses to draw the conclusion that it was all meaningless.
In the section where Gaber works into a crescendo of radical criticisms of the Italian establishment, he takes advantage of the fact that it’s easier to criticize corruption and the Deep State than to defend a political ideal. But his whole purpose here is to create space for the final part, where he does propound an ideal in spite of everything.
The piece as politics
The line about workers wanting a raise is about the only part where Gaber says something that would fit into the framework of a James Carville (“It’s the economy, stupid”).
The enthusiastic response of the crowd at the end, one can detect a sort of gratitude. Gaber allows them to recuperate a part of their past that they thought had been taken away, and dignify it. In so doing, he also makes it possible to renounce parts of it more honestly.
All of this takes place on the level of narrative and myth. It’s true that the manipulation of symbols and dreams with cynical disregard for their content is characteristic of fascism, or advertising. Ignoring them, on the other hand, is the default communications mode of technocratic liberalism.
Gaber recognizes that being an adherent of communism was only sometimes, partially due to lofty principles – it could also be motivated by loneliness or frustration or conformism, and it was in any case inflected by each person’s social background and accidents of life circumstances. He is therefore embracing a “tragic view” of political affiliation: what we believe in matters, and whom we support has something to do with what we believe in, but there can be so many imprecisions and misalignments along the way that well-meaning people can end up as committed supporters of questionable or even terrible causes. Not that the intentions were always good – but the people on the “correct” side don’t always have pure motives either.
This is why I have no sympathy for the endless laments about ‘low-information voters.’ When I read pious handwringing or condemnation of Republican voters “voting against their own interests,” I wish I could ask, “Suppose you were talking to an Italian factory worker from the 1950s, and trying to persuade him to renounce dictatorship. Would you treat this ‘low-information voter’ the same way?”
Intellectuals, under pressure to take consistent public stances, may become ideologically monolithic. The political convictions of other people are typically more like magma. It’s true that if you treat a person aggressively or scornfully, she will be unlikely to acknowledge that you are right about anything. But over time, people change their minds. Look at how much the attitudes of rank and file Republicans have shifted on the Iraq war, Russia, and the trustworthiness of the Republican elite. Look at how much the attitudes of rank and file Democrats have shifted on Guantanamo Bay, Russia, and the electoral college.
One option is to start trying to talk to people in ways that might break them out of ideological iceboxes.
There’s always the other option. We could just hold fast to stock images of Republican voters as the Other, in order to reassure liberals that, yes, we sometimes disagree vociferously with you guys – but at least you’re human.