People Voted Communist Because…

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Competitive leftism.

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.

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  1. relstprof

    These personal histories got me reflecting.

    In my high school c.1992, in an American politics course, we were tasked with interviewing our grandparents about the Depression. So I asked my grandfather, born in 1910, about his politics.

    He spent his early life as a farmer, his midlife as a janitor, and his retirement as a grocery bagger. This last job is when I really knew him. He had an 8th grade education. He had farmed until he sold the land for his kids’ college educations. Ohio born, bred, and died.

    So I asked him. He said, “I was raised Republican, but then I voted for FDR.”


    “Cause there wasn’t anything better.”

    RIP, old man.

    1. LifelongLib

      Decades ago I remember mentioning something I’d heard in school about civil rights to my grandmother (born 1904). She looked at me and said “Nobody has any rights in America. Everything is for the rich. The poor man gets nothing.” And she worked for the government…

      1. relstprof

        This is why we need to make government more accountable to the needs of the poor and struggling. This is about civil rights. Public accountability. A politics for everyone. Single-payer. Debt relief. Free tuition. Anti-monopoly. For coral reefs.

        Make government for the people by the people.

  2. skippy

    Amends for posting twice in the first instance, Antipodean thingy…

    Umm…. because fascism seems like a short term upgrade to the expectation of the utopia that communism offers…. promises…

    Fascism offers the elites ™ an option of narrative where the unwashed are Bernays’ed about an capitalistic upgrade option [club membership], where Communism offers some promise of the stateless society [automatistic individualistic – same as Free Market AnCap et al – no coercion] in the far distant future, but, the elites just end out camping it for biopolitical reasons.

    Disheveled…. is it possible to have a 4000K+ year hangover – ??????

    1. Oregoncharles

      You mean civilization? Sure.

      I’m not actually a Green Anarchist, but I do see their point. The present state of the places where civilization started speaks volumes.

  3. Disturbed Voter

    My favorites are:

    Some were communists because they had been raised overly Catholic.

    Some were communists because earlier they were fascists.

    So yes, I blame the Vatican, for both fascism and communism.

    1. Michael C

      Not sure if I am wrongly interpreting his “Some were communists because they had been raised overtly Catholic,” line, but within Catholicism, at least more so in the Catholicism of my youth in the 60’s, the social justice thread was prominent. John Paul II of course stamped that out. Refershingly, Pope Francis is reviving it, though his obstacles to doing so are many and run deep.

      Overall, all of the lines of Giorgia Gaber give deep insight into the psyche of humans, but his guiding us to the impetus of for humans to fly by standing in solidarity with one another is important in its optimism about what all people long for, regardless of faction or party, while still correctly defining polarized world of today.

      1. Mike

        Francis may be the Obama of Catholicism – he certainly did not do much against the Argentine junta during his days there. Speaking ex cathedra and “in cathedra” are two different things. the Curia retains the right to truncate or eliminate him should he stretch the ‘reservation” too far.

        Nonetheless, his statements do inspire many within the Church to at least entertain the notion of a more just response to the economics of plunder, and have opened it to reexamination of its actions in Latin America, and its current opportunism in Africa.

    2. MoiAussie

      Extraordinarily reminiscent of Enzo Jannacci’s Quelli Che that begins Lina Wertmüller’s incomparable Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties). The song is a catalog of those who allowed Fascism to rise in Italy.

      The ones who don’t enjoy themselves even when they laugh. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who worship the corporate image not knowing that they work for someone else. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who should have been shot in the cradle. Pow! Oh, yeah.
      The ones who say follow me to success but kill me if I fail, so to speak. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who say we Italians are the greatest he-men on earth. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who are from Rome.
      The ones who say that’s for me.
      The ones who say, you know what I mean. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who vote for the right because they’re fed up with strikes. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who vote white in order not to get dirty. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who never get involved with politics. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who say, be calm. Calm.
      The ones who still support the king.
      The ones who say, yes, Sir. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who make love standing in their boots and imagine they’re in a luxurious bed.
      The ones who believe Christ is Santa Claus as a young man. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who say: Oh, what the hell.
      The ones who were there.
      The ones who believe in everything… even in God.
      The ones who listen to the national anthem. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who love their country.
      The ones who keep going, just to see how it will end. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who are in garbage up to here. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who sleep soundly, even with cancer. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who even now don’t believe the world is round. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who’re afraid of flying. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who’ve never had a fatal accident. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who’ve had one.
      The ones who at a certain point in their lives create a secret weapon, Christ. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who are always standing at the bar.
      The ones who are always in Switzerland.
      The ones who started early, haven’t arrived and don’t know they’re not going to. Oh, yeah.
      The ones who lose wars by the skin of their teeth.
      The ones who say, everything is wrong here.
      The ones who say, now let’s all have a good laugh. Oh, yeah.
      Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

      Anyone who dies without seeing this film hasn’t properly lived.

  4. MisterMr

    “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?”

    What dictatorship are you speaking of? The italian PCI was a democratic party, and it was basically the only opponent of the DC (Christian Democrats) who ruled the government up to the nineties. In the fifties it was official american policy that the PCI could not win elections in Italy, and the USA left paramilitary forces in Italy just in case (see “Gladio” ), so if there was a “dictatorship” in Italy it was from the other side.
    Also during fascism communism was forbidden, so communists went into hiding and later formad the backbone of italian “partigiani” antifascist fighters, so during the 50s italian communists were rather anti-dictatorship.

    The PCI mostly pushed for wage increases, power to he unions, public health service etc.
    I really don’t think you can compare italian factory voters of the 50s to recent american Trump voters in terms of “voting against his interest”.
    I think american Trump voters are closer to italian Lega Nord or Berlusconi voters (many of whom are/were “proletarians”, and were/are voting clearly against their interest).

    PS: the reference to mama not being communist is, I think, based on the idea that women tend to vote more conservative than men (that was true in Italy at the time, tough not in the USA and I don’t know if it’s still true in Italy today).

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      On your PS, that’s not saying anything different from what’s already in the piece.

      As for the rest, I’ll quote from this article, posted by a commenter a few days ago, and not at all unsympathetic to the PCI voters:

      Yes, the PCI was Stalinist. But how, for how long, and when was it [Stalinist]? In other words, in what sense [was it communist]? First note: For a long time, the people voting communist were Stalinist, in the aura of the edification of the USSR. And in the aura of Stalin, the heir of Lenin. And of the “titan” who triumphed at Stalingrad. How could anyone deny it? It’s impossible not to acknowledge that this legend became an authentic popular religion of the humble, waiting for redemption and the final judgment. […]

      [We can say this] with no less understanding for those – workers, farmers, common people – who cried out, “Long live Stalin, long live Italy!” in the years following the liberation from Nazi fascism. This heritage remained latent in what Pasolini called “the poor sections of the poor red flags,” even while Pasolini himself had a brother massacred by the communist partisans at Porzjus. These were the same sections that during the postwar period – before giving the floor to the comrade of the center – would symbolically call comrade Stalin to the presidency. They would even leave an empty chair next to the podium [as if for Stalin]. Those were the same scruffy sections that for so many years, refused to remove the portrait of their “little father.” This was thus the popular religion of a part of the common people that was becoming part of a democratic nation, all the while lifted up by this myth. And the political religion of the PCI, of its elite? It was certainly Stalinist. At least up through 1956, the “unforgettable year” and new beginning, marked as it was by suffering and confusion. But “Stalinist” in a clear sense – in its link with the USSR.

      It was in that link, whether you like it or not, that the party of Gramsci had dug out its place in the world. […]

      Let’s look schematically at what happened throughout the relevant history. […] Also during this early phase [starting in 1926] was the famous letter that Gramsci, before being arrested, sent to Togliatti, denouncing the violent destruction within Bolshevism and the brutal struggle by the administration against the worker opposition. Togliatti kept the letter private, in agreement with Bukharin, and from that moment forward there was an imposed deviation on behalf of the supreme interest of the Soviet Union. [This deviation extended through the mid 30s, when meanwhile the great purges were occurring, together with mass disappearances in the wake of forced collectivization. Did Togliatti know?

      He knew and pushed it aside, on the basis of a tragic, “ends-first” system of justification, in which his own personal survival was the same cause as the survival of what remained of the PCI […]

      You argue that because communists played an important role among the anti-Nazi partisan, they were therefore “anti-dictatorship.” If taken seriously, this logic would imply that Stalin was himself anti-dictatorship, since he also opposed the Nazis.

      The existence of Gladio is similarly irrelevant to the question of whether the PCI supported Leninism.

      Rossana Rossanda, who was in the top echelons of the PCI throughout this period, was much less willing to treat this as a non-issue than you appear to be. See the long quotes from her I provided with my last article, in which she says she honestly isn’t sure how repressive she and her colleagues would have been if they had come to power. She feels that they were different from Stalin – how different? She isn’t sure.

      The debate over whether the PCI should renounce Leninism lasted well until 1990, see here for a discussion.

      1. MisterMr

        Sorry, I think you are wrong.

        You didn’t write “Italian communists in the 50s were pro Stalin”, which is certainly true. You wrote:

        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?”

        which is a completely different thing.

        First of all, “voting against their own interests” generally means: “why are poor people voting republican, even if republican policy is pro rich?”.
        Now this is totally different from poor people who voted for the PCI, because PCI policies were totally high tax and redistribution, so the poor people who voted the PCI were totally voting in their direct self interest.
        This also has nothing to do with Stalinism: if Trump was really following policies that are good for poor whites, nobody would ask “why poor whites are voting Trump”; the question is “why poor whites are voting for Trump since he is both illiberal and totally making policies that are squeezing poor whites even more?”
        So in this respect your analogy Trump-PCI is very misleading.

        Second, on the “evil dictatorship” thing, while PCI voters were supporting a dictatorship in a different country, they weren’t supporting a dictatorship in their own country, nor did the PCI try to impose one.
        There are many post WW2 examples of parties in democratic countries that supported dictatorships abroad, but this is not the same thing of being a dictatorial party, otherwise american Republicans and Democrats would be dictatorial parties.

        Third, you discount too much the point of view of people who just very recently came out from a dictatorial system (fascism), and in particular the theory (common among postwar lefties) that fascism was just the natural endpoint of capitalism, when you assume that people who are pro-Stalin cannot think of themselves as “pro-freedom”, even if this doesn’t make sense from our point of view.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          You seem to be reacting to two different aspects of what I am doing, and as such, I have different responses to each.

          On the one hand, you seem motivated by trying to set the record straight about people with whom you identify (PCI voters from the 50s), both in order to make sure the history is correct and in order to make sure these people are not maligned. I have a lot of empathy with this concern, and this should be clear from the piece.

          On the other hand, you also seem to recoil at the thought that PCI voters from the 50s and modern Republicans could share aspects of the same anthropology, or the same internal psychology.

          You imagine that I assume that people who are pro-Stalin “cannot think of themselves as ‘pro-freedom’.” Wrong! That’s the point of phrases like “democratic centralism” and the exaltation of the soviets as the true source of power. Of course I assume that they could see themselves as pro-freedom. By the same token, Republican voters typically assume that they are voting in favor of their own economic interests. In both cases, we can take the sentiment seriously. In both cases, we can ask ourselves whether the party they are supporting would actually work toward the respective ideals if it had substantial unconstrained power.

          The argument in your comment depends on using different yardsticks when judging ordinary people to whom you are sympathetic (PCI voters from the 50s) versus those to whom you are unsympathetic (current Republicans).

          When judging the PCI, you look at official statements, assuming that they represent exactly what the PCI would have done if it had taken power. When judging the Republican leadership, you ignore official statements of idealistic intentions, as is completely reasonable.

          People trying to evaluate the PCI in 1950 could not simply say, “Togliatti says he’s pro-freedom and pro-democracy, and he’s a good guy, so obviously that’s how the PCI would act if it obtained power.” They had to look at the record of other communist parties that had taken power, and take that into account. PCI members typically feel that the PCI was “different” – Rossanda says it, I say it, you say it, we all say it. How different? It isn’t easy for Rossanda to be sure even now.

          There is a contradiction in your response around the problem of US power in Italy. You criticize the US for its activities on behalf of the DC – and you’re right that the US was supporting the DC with money and in other ways, at a time when the PCI was receiving money from Moscow. At the same time, you argue that the PCI had officially accepted participation in parliamentary politics and so there was no danger of it undermining freedom in Italy. The problem is that those two phenomena (the shadow of US power, and the PCI’s acceptance of democratic procedure) are plausibly connected.

          If Stalin had liberated Italy with the help of the PCI partisans, are you prepared to claim that the PCI would have made sure that Italy was ruled democratically? Nothing in the history elsewhere supports this. Perhaps the PCI would have taken a “Titoist” line, and managed to buck the tutelage of the USSR – but Tito was also authoritarian and repressive.

          If you have to choose between Italy being ruled by the PCI in the military shadow of the USSR, versus between Italy being ruled through democratic forms in the military shadow of the USA, with a finger being put on the scale for the DC, then it’s hard to claim that the first represents an “objective” vote for freedom.

          What about a third scenario? Suppose we imagine an alternative history where Italy was not militarily conditioned by stronger powers in any way. Would the PCI have spontaneously embraced democratic forms without the conditioning effects of the US lurking in the background? Or would the rhetorical pressures toward maximalism and consistency with past doctrines have militated against this? I’m honestly not sure.

          Your analogy between PCI supporting Stalin, and (say) the US supporting Pinochet, is, while interesting, imperfect. In the relationship between the US and Pinochet, there was no prospect of the latter conditioning the former’s policies, either ideologically or more directly.

          Moving on to the modern US half of the analogy, you again weight the dice against people for whom you feel distaste. In the case of Trump voters, they couldn’t vote based on hindsight based on what he’s actually done as president, but based on indications about what he said he would do. As has been documented ad nauseam on this web site, it was quite possible to think that voting for Trump might have positive practical effects – voters concerned about trade agreements and involvement in foreign wars saw very little for them in HRC’s campaign.

          The effect of policies is often not known as definitely in real time. In the 90s, there was a lot of support from black people for WJC. However, his policies on crime entailed a massive expansion of the carceral state. Should we chide them for voting against their own interests?

          Along similar lines, it made straightforward short-term sense, as you say, for PCI voters in the 50s to vote for redistributionist policies. However, unless you again give credit to the US for constraining Italian options, you have to also consider the possibility that voting for the PCI might have brought the PCI to power, and then ask what would have happened if the PCI had been in charge of the Italian economy. Would they have done better than the USSR did at managing its economy? Probably. Hopefully… But it isn’t obvious.

      2. MisterMr

        about the svolta of the Bolognina that you linked to, I don’t think that it can be described as a “debate to renounce Leninism”.

        In the 20s the italian socialist party split in two: the PSI (reformist) and the PCI (revolutionary and leninist). But after the end of WW2, the PCI, lead by Togliatti, agreed to be a democratic party (with the agreement of Stalin, that already estabilished at Yalta that Italy was to stay out of the USSR sphere of influence).
        If by “leninism” we mean “take power with revolution”, the PCI already changed his mind in 1946 already.
        If by “leninism” we mean “a country where all or most the means of production are owned by the state” then it didn’t, but this isn’t in itself “dictatorship”.

        From the article you linked I get this quote (translated by me) of berlinguer, the boss of the PCI, in 1979:

        «Our critics want to force us to throw away not only the rich lesson of Marx and Lenin, but also the ideal and political innovations of Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti. And then step after step, we should reach a point where we say that all our history – that also has its shadows – was just a sequence of errors»

        I think that this sentence shows very clearly that Berlinguer was okay with Marx and Lenin (soviet-style economy) but also with Gramsci (antifascism, hence anti-dictatorship) and Togliatti (democratic party, not taking power through revolution).

        After 1990, that part of the PCI who renounced the symbol of the hammer and sickle (this was what the “svolta della Bolognina” was about) basically replaced the PSI (that was previously wiped out by a corruption scandal) and became a “neoliberal leftish” party.

        So it seems to me that you are equating everyone who disagreed with this change (I voted for the other side of the split, “Rifondazione Comunista”) with crazed pro-dictatorship guys, but I don’t think I’m one.

        In short I think that your are taking for granted the “neoliberal view on history”, although perhaps not realizing it.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          Here we are much less in disagreement than it probably appears.

          I don’t see you as one of the “crazed pro-dictatorship guys.”

          I also agree that the result of 1990 was a “neoliberal leftish” party. The major point of my earlier article is that this shouldn’t have been the choice. It shouldn’t have been necessary, in the wake of 1989, for what remained of the PCI to renounce attempts to envision a dramatically different economy. I keep trying to understand why this happened, and so far my theses seem reasonable, but I’m quite open to new ideas. Since you lived through the events in question, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

          I agree with you that a state-run economy is not necessarily incompatible with democracy (this against the “neoliberal view on history”). It would help if we had more historical examples of the compatibility, but I see no reason to rule it out.

          I do reject the facile syllogism “anti-fascism, hence anti-dictatorship.”

          I don’t actually know of any evidence that Gramsci was unambiguously in favor of democratic forms, but I haven’t read all of the Quaderni and maybe it’s in there somewhere.

          I mentioned in my other response that it doesn’t simply settle the question to say that Togliatti said he was in favor of working within the system. Provisionally, or as a matter of principle? I don’t have a stake in this question – I’m trying to think critically. (I know it’s a touchy subject – I remember an Italian telling me once that even with people who now soft-pedal their involvement with the PCI, guai a toccare Togliatti!)

          My statement about 1990 was based on what the phrase centralismo democratico means, e.g. according to Wikipedia. If you tell me that the line of the PCI was coming from below already before 1990, or that the people voting for the Rifondazione side were not in favor of top-down decision-making (within the party, or (separate question) without), then I’m willing to take your perspective seriously. I understand that in these resolutions, particular wording often has strong symbolic resonances/nuances that imply more than what is stated in the actual document.

          1. MisterMr

            First of all, thanks for your answer.
            I’ll try to answer again breaking my answer in three parts:
            1) was the postwar PCI an antidemocratic party?
            2) was the PCI a rational choice for working class Italians in some objective sense?
            3) was a different outcome possible in the 90s?

            There were at least two brands of socialism between the two world wars: democratic reformists and revolutionary.
            The PCI was born in the revolutionary camp, and hence potentially antidemocratic. However, because of various historical accidents, they jumped the shark immediately after WW2 with Togliatti.
            It is true that this happened thanks to American influence, and it is also true that Togliatti himself was a friend of Stalin.
            However once they jumped the shark they never posed a risk for democracy in Italy.
            If you mix the PCI with communist dictatorships you put in the same basket parties that were antidemocratic and parties that weren’t, and this is a problem.
            If we look at the political history post WW2, it is clear that there was a “social democratic/new deal” period, then something broke in the late 70s and in the 80s began a neoliberal period, which caused a falling wage share more or less everywhere. The PCI was clearly a social democratic party, even though they resented the label, while those parties that called themselves social democratic were actually neoliberal, like Craxi’ s PSI.
            So in my opinion it is quite clear that PSI voters were voting for social democracy, and thus were making the “rational” choice.
            On the other side, for what I can understand it was quite clear from Trump’s campaign that he is a Reagan like guy, so I don’t agree that people who voted for him as a worker candidate were making a rational choice.

            Could things go differently? In hindsight I think that no, they couldn’t, because the failure of the USSR dealt such a blow to leftish ideology that all social democratic policies were associated with Stalinism and the baby was thrown out with the water.
            But precisely for this reason I think that it is important to distinguish between Stalinism and euro communism, of which the PCI was a part.

            1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

              Thanks for your answer as well. I will break my answer into four parts – first responding to your three rubrics, but then I want to emphasize that while I’m interested in the questions discussed here, they don’t significantly affect my overall logic, and I wouldn’t want for us to get overly stuck in them.

              In terms of factual points, I’m with you up to the point where you assert, “Once they jumped the shark, they never posed a risk for democracy in Italy.” I’m not sure you’re wrong. But I’m not sure you’re right, either.

              Let’s review what evidence we’ve adduced that’s relevant. I’ve provided Rossanda’s insider viewpoint. You’ve provided Togliatti’s statement, which I’ve said one isn’t necessarily justified in taking as definitive. I’ve asked you for evidence on Gramsci’s commitment to democracy (relevant to the extent that Togliatti promoted the Quaderni), and you haven’t responded. To the extent that Lenin continued to represent a respected reference point inside the PCI, that conserved anti-democratic potential. You’ve agreed that the NATO presence was relevant in the PCI’s willingness to go along with democracy. Was a vote for the PCI a vote against NATO? If so, then it’s natural to ask the question: “If the PCI had come to power, and had managed to withdraw from NATO (and had not been stopped from doing so), then are we sure it would have kept to its commitment to democracy?”

              I think there are judgment calls in both cases. If one assumes you are right about the democracy question (per part 1), then it wasn’t unreasonable to vote for the PCI if you thought its leadership was economically competent.

              On the other hand, as detailed on this blog (google Lambert Strether’s articles if you are curious), Trump was unambiguously anti-TPP, and during the campaign season he was often, unlike Reagan, quite critical of military interventionism. Other aspects of his campaign were also not as cut and dried as you make it sound, e.g. his noises about massive infrastructure programs to create jobs. For these reasons, a person in a town hit by deindustrialization, where a lot of people had served in Iraq, might quite rationally vote for Trump.

              You say “The failure of the USSR dealt such a blow to leftist ideology that…”

              I’m glad you’ve brought up this point, because several commenters have been offended at the idea that that there was such a connection.

              Why was there a connection, and how could this connection have been preemptively weakened, so that the good parts of Eurocommunism would not have been discredited by the fall of the USSR? My tentative answer is that it had to do with a propensity to subdivide the world into those who are on our side (even if we have reservations about them) and the Others. The article I linked to refers to the appartenenza di campo, che mai venne meno…. I see this mindset as having blocked the PCI from being able to distinguish itself from the USSR in a way that was strong enough to withstand the shock of the Berlin Wall coming down. You insist in your reply on the importance of not putting the PCI in the same basket as the communist dictatorships. I insist back that the PCI should have made this “basket-putting” more difficult than it did. If there are reasons it couldn’t, then we should talk about these.

              In 1955, Aron argued that social democracies like Sweden or Labour Party Britain should be considered “real liberation,” since they objectively improved the freedom of action and well-being of workers, while the USSR should be considered “ideal liberation,” since it perhaps infused workers with a sense of their historical importance, but did not provide them with much real say in important decisions. It sounds from your comment like you agree, and that you are saying that the PCI was in practice more on Aron’s side (on this particular issue) than on Stalin’s. But in rhetoric, I don’t think the PCI could have ever expressed this view, because Aron was anticommunist and so an unperson.

              I am further suggesting that in your preferences, you are continuing, maybe unconsciously, to reinforce this appartenenza di campo. Beyond the details of the historical analysis, you seem mainly to balk at the idea that one could consider being pro-Stalin as as big of an error of judgment as voting for Trump. This seems like a peculiar cause to hang your hat on. Thinking that support for Stalin was a mistake doesn’t make me despise the PCI voters. The only reason I can think to object to the comparison is that in your mind, the PCI voters from the 50s were part of the species of rational, sympathetic beings, and modern Republican voters, like Lega Nord voters, aren’t.

              None of these specifics affect my argument much. I could have spoken of PCI voters from the 50s being “pro-Stalin,” and you would not (per your earlier comment) have had much to complain about. I didn’t do that because it would inevitably have come across as trying to drown the PCI in the opprobrium of Stalinism.

              Suppose I had been talking about PCF voters. Would you be prepared to argue that the PCF (who was upset with Khrushchev for criticizing Stalin) was sincerely committed to democracy? On my side, my argument would still apply. I would continue to be against demonizing PCF voters, for exactly the reasons I laid out in the piece.

              I will finally mention that I am, to some extent, recapitulating familiar themes from Pasolini. Pasolini was of course more radical – he made the mainstream intelligentsia uncomfortable by being willing to argue that MSI youth were just as human as youth in the student movement.

              1. xenophon61

                Off-topic, but I thank you both -Outis and MisterMr- for allowing us a glimpse to a fascinating period!
                Once again, thanks!

              2. MisterMr

                Ok, I’ll try to answer your four point starting from the fourth (sorry for the wall of words).

                4: ” Would you be prepared to argue that the PCF (who was upset with Khrushchev for criticizing Stalin) was sincerely committed to democracy?”

                In my opinion you are posing the wrong question here. Everybody is “sincerely committed to democracy”, including for example Lenin, as the soviet system was democratic, on paper. The question is wether this or that party does something that negates democracy in pratice.

                The idea of subjective commitment isn’t relevant. Perhaps Togliatti wasn’t “sincerely committed” to democracy, but since he didn’t do anything against democracy you can’t blame him for something he didn’t do.
                For example, voter suppression is an antidemocratic thing (it negates democracy in an important way), however the PCI never tried to suppress opponent’s votes in those parts of Italy (many) where it had administrative power.
                On the other hand, for what I can understand american Republicans do.
                So if we look at what the parties actually did, the PCI was way less antidemocratic than the current Republicans.

                I’ll put here a translation of the wikipedia page on vote for women to show what was the kind of situation we are speaking about:


                In august [1944] the parties lead by A. De Gasperi (DC) and P. Togliatti (PCI) did show their support to the extension to the right to vote to women too […].
                In september 1944, again on initiative of the PCI, the Italian Women Union (UDI) was founded […] this macro organisation had to unify the campaign fo political rights [for women]. [as the UDI was too linked to the PCI later a group of catholic women splitered from it and founded the catholic equivalent group CIF].
                In 20 january 1945 Togliatti (PC) wrote a letter to De Gasperi (DC) where he said that it was necessary to debate the [extension of the right to vote to women] in the upcoming council of ministers, to wich De Gasperi answered: “I did even faster than what you ask, I already called Bonomi [the relevant minister] telling him that on monday evening or Tuesday morning you and me will go to him to ast to propose a project extension of the right to vote to women to in the upcoming council of ministers.”

                They (both Togliatti and De Gasperi) don’t look particularly antidemocratic to me.

                I ask you to substantiate the idea that the PCI (or the PCF) was antidemocratic with some law with antidemocratic content they pushed for. I think that you are giving far too much weight to the feelings of leftish politicians and intellectuals like Rossanda who, with very good reasons, questioned their previous infatuation with stalinism, but you don’t realise that these feelings were also part of the change in ideology in the 80s (same goes for Gaber).

                1: “it’s natural to ask the question: “If the PCI had come to power, and had managed to withdraw from NATO (and had not been stopped from doing so), then are we sure it would have kept to its commitment to democracy?” ”

                Please note that Italy at the time was a multiparty perfect proportional parliamentary democracy, with laws that were clearly crafted in order to prevent a power grab from the government. Italian government were famously very short lived because italian constitution, which was crafted after fascism, keeps the executive weak as the writers feared an executive power grab. They certainly feared a return to fascism, and probably leninism, and thus they created an electoral system that is clearly “anti power grab”.
                The kind of power grab / strong change in policy you hipothize could happen only with a very, very strong electoral victory of the PCI, such as more than 50% of the electorate (something that didn’t happen even for the big party of the time, the DC, that generally hovered around 30%).
                I think that there could be a misunderstanding about this if we compare italian politics of the time to american politics, because a two party majoritarian system has different dinamics than a multiparty perfectly proportional system.
                In case the PCI actually got such a victory that they could really ditch the NATO, then they would have clearly had the democratic mandate to do so, so that not ditch NATO at that point would have been the antidemocratic thing.
                Would, in an alternative universe, a democratically elected communist party that ditched the NATO to the Warsaw pact have mantained a democratic profile? or would it have turned dictatorial?
                This is hard to know because no democratically elected communist party ever joined the Warsaw pact, so we have no evidence of either case.
                It isn’t even that obvious that a victorious PCI would have joined the Warsaw pact in the sense you mean (although it’s true that they would have ditched Nato, they could stay neutral too).
                2: I followed Trump’s campaign only through blogs (as I live in Italy), including Naked Capitalism. For what I can tell from this limited knowledge, Trump’s campaign was very similar to Berlusconi’s and to Bossi (the historical leader of the Lega Nord). The point is that if you want a new deal/social democracy economy you need “big government” amd when a politician starts with an anti-tax stance it is obvious that he isn’t going to deliver on this. The Lega Nord basic theory for example was that northern worker’s wage were pushed down by immigration from southern Italy and from high taxes on northern enterpreneurs (to pay for welfare state in southern Italy); their policy was thus to – roll of drums – lower taxes on enterpreneurs and cut the welfare state, all in the names of the workers.
                I realize that this is a contested idea, hence the “judgement call”, but it really shouldn’t be contested at this point in history.
                3: “Why was there a connection, and how could this connection have been preemptively weakened, so that the good parts of Eurocommunism would not have been discredited by the fall of the USSR? My tentative answer is that it had to do with a propensity to subdivide the world into those who are on our side (even if we have reservations about them) and the Others.”

                I think there are two different connections.
                The first connection is that the USSR had a government run economy, and the PCI and other euro-communist parties were totally “big government” parties. The fall of the USSR was mostly due to the dissatisfaction of soviet citiziens with the economic performance of the USSR. This hasn’t much to do with dictatorship but is the real reason of the ideological shift to the right of the second postwar. In fact this connection should not be rescinded, because it is true, but should be put in perspective with the effects of the “small government” trend.
                The second connection is the we/them logic you speak of, but even there things are fuzzier than they look. I’m born 1976 and the first time I voted was also shortly after the “svolta della Bolognina”, so I went to the rallies of both parties, the PDS (that recused the hammer and sickle logo) and Rifondazione (that kept the logo, while assuring that they weren’t stalinists) in Bologna, a rather leftish city. I should point out that for purely “marketing” reasons I tought that renouncing the hammer and sickle made a lot of sense.
                The Rifondazione party had a platform of external help to the other (much bigger) PDS party, and their idea was something like: “a vote for us is like a vote for the PDS, but we will try to steer them to the left.”
                The PDS party started the rally with a local representative that said, more or less literally: “yes, we changed the logo, because we are not stalinists, but our ideals didn’t change, we are not going to be a [fake leftish] party like that of Tony Blair.”
                Then a national representative (Massimo D’Alema, a very senior politician) arrived and said, again more or less literally: “we changed the logo, because we are now going to be a modern party like that wonderful example of modern leftism, Tony Blair.”
                So the border between “us” and “them” more or less actually had the social democrats on the same side of the “stalinists”, because on the other side there were the neoliberals.

                1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

                  Thank you for this long and thoughtful response.

                  On some points I feel like our theses complement each other and there isn’t much for me to add. On others, responses are below, following the order in which they occur in your comment.

                  “Everybody is sincerely committed to democracy.” I assume you mean “publicly” or “verbally” committed to democracy, but I still don’t think this is accurate. If you say “freedom,” then your statement is closer to being defensible, during the modern era.

                  The word “democratic” was part of the phrase “democratic centralism,” but the meaning of the concept wasn’t entirely occulted. In 1904, Rosa Luxemburg (who considered Lenin a comrade for years later) criticized Lenin, based on the latter’s writings, as promoting “the ultra-centralist tendency in the Russian movement. The viewpoint presented with incomparable vigor and logic in this book, is that of pitiless centralism.” In 1911, she wrote that

                  Already in 1903, shortly after the constitution of the two factional wings in the Russian Party, we felt obliged to stand up decisively against the organizational centralism of Lenin and his friends, because they wanted to secure a revolutionary direction for the proletarian movement by swaddling the party, in a purely mechanistic fashion, with an intellectual dictator from the central party Executive.

                  Given both his writings and his historical actions, setting up Lenin as a major historical reference point is not irrelevant for how a party views democracy. I’m not claiming it’s determinative, but it isn’t irrelevant.

                  Whether a party “negates democracy in practice” is certainly more consequential than the exact details of the leadership’s mindset. If a party has not held significant power, though, then to try to imagine how it might govern if it had power is, by definition, trying to decipher its intentions.

                  If you think that when Maurice Thorez said “I am the most Stalinist person in France, within our party that is proud to be Stalinist,” this should have been irrelevant to the decisions and assessments of a French voter, then I disagree strongly.

                  I don’t think it was irrelevant to remember that Thorez lambasted Doriot and Barbé in 1934 for “opportunism” in advocating for a front of antifascist unity with social-democratic parties; then, later that year, he espoused the same front of unity; then, in August 1939, he shocked many PCF members by supporting the Russo-German pact, while still defending antifascism and the idea that Hitler was unusually dangerous; in September, he switched to the line that the war was merely a struggle between competing imperialisms; by January 1940, the PCF leadership was writing up critiques of its “errors” in supporting antifascism earlier.

                  All of these shifts coincided smoothly with Stalin’s own shifts in foreign policy, sometimes with very slight delays.

                  I can’t comment one way or the other on the PCI’s behavior on local electoral issues. Of course it speaks well of Togliatti that he supported the right to vote of women, just as it speaks well of De Gasperi and of the pope.

                  In the 50s, there wasn’t a lot of past evidence to draw on about how the PCI would govern if it took power. By Berlinguer’s time in the 70s, on the other hand, there was more real experience.

                  Your point about the importance of looking at Rossanda’s and Gaber’s attitudes while keeping in mind the context of the 80s/90s shifts in the general mood is a reasonable one. Let’s try to do so.

                  It doesn’t diminish the force of Rossanda’s critique much. She had already been expelled from the party in 1969 for heterodoxy; according to her autobiography, the shock of 1956 turned all of her hair white. She was clearly uncomfortable with some aspects of the PCI long before the 80s/90s period. Not that I rule out your point entirely – some of the language she uses occasionally partakes of false dichotomies (essentially, Leninism vs. neoliberalism) that were certainly in circulation earlier, but were very prevalent in the 90s.

                  Gaber liked to buck trends. Take, for example, his Io se fossi Dio in 1980. One could see Qualcuno era comunista not so much as a concession to the trend of the 90s, but as an attempt to stand resolutely against it. Not that he was unaffected by the general mood, but his stance was not straightforward submission.

                  A line that I didn’t include reads:

                  Some people were communist because they didn’t support that foul thing that we insist on calling democracy.

                  I didn’t include it because it’s a little difficult to interpret. One could say that it’s mainly a reaction to the corruption of the DC, etc.. But I didn’t include it because to a suspicious anticommunist American audience, it could also be read as revealing fundamental reservations about whether “formal democracy” should be supported at all. I’m not sure if this is fair to Gaber, but I’m also not sure that it doesn’t hint in that direction.

                  I feel like your stance is also significantly colored by the ideological shifts from the 80s/90s on. Neither of us were alive in 1968, but judging from documents I’ve read from the time, if you were to ask student leaders of the time if they were entirely on board with formal democracy, their attitude wouldn’t have been, “Of course! How could you even ask such a thing?” It might have instead been to label the questioner as unduly beholden to “la propaganda borghese.”

                  After 1989, people I know from an ex-PCI background have tended to be very offended at the idea that they support anything besides formal democracy. Before, I don’t think the attitude was quite the same.

                  Nor am I trying to stigmatize that earlier attitude. I’m personally in favor of democracy, for the time being, anyway, but I don’t rule out the possibility that there could be fairly different political arrangements that realize the ideal of democracy better. (I do rule out the idea that such arrangements are likely to be based on Lenin’s writings.)

                  Just to clarify: I agree with you that if a party had had an electoral mandate to ditch NATO, that would have been the democratic thing to do. (I brought up the point in the context of looking at whether the presence of NATO might have been relevant to the PCI’s commitment to democracy, not in order to express any particular position on NATO itself.)

                  I incidentally agree with you that a victorious PCI might very well not have joined the Warsaw Pact. Compare Tito, as I said.

                  Your argument about Trump’s economic policies would only follow if Trump had pledged not to run deficits. Otherwise it’s possible for a president to cut taxes but increase spending – see Reagan.

                  In fact, Trump shocked the GOP establishment by saying during the campaign things like he had no plan to touch Social Security.

                  Saying that the shift was purely about small government versus big government and not also about political openness sounds like defensive simplification of the past to me. Events like Gorbachev’s announcements of perestroika and glasnost, the Solidarity strikes, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall resonated emotionally and received a great deal of media attention.

                  I found your personal account fascinating. I don’t understand your final sentence – meaning I’m not sure what you’re arguing, or how your account supports it. From what you said, you and the local representative and Rifondazione, all wishing to draw a line between yourselves and Stalinists, were on one side, and the national representative (D’Alema) was on the neoliberal side.

                  1. Catherine

                    Dear Outis,

                    You asked for personal stories/background in Communist countries. My parents were political dissidents from Hungary after the 1956 revolution, and fled to Canada.

                    My parents left everyone/everything behind because my father’s life was in danger.

                    He was in a management position at a state-owned construction company, and he and several other high-level workers at the company joined the Socialist Worker’s Party. The Worker’s Party had a list of several demands from the Communist Party; in essence, it demanded an overhaul of the way in which the Communist system in Hungary functioned: top-down rule. The Worker’s Party wanted a democratic workplace: bottom-up rule. They demanded worker’s councils that would democratically decide labour law, compensation, workplace safety, etc. They didn’t want to replace Communism; they wanted to *transform* Communism into a truly democratic, socially beneficial system.

                    This is an aspect of the 1956 revolution that most people don’t understand: Hungarians weren’t trying to get rid of Communism, they were trying to transform it into something better — less authoritarian and more democratic. And run by Hungarians, not the Russians! They wanted the foreigners out!

                    My father was distributing information and holding meetings at his workplace to spread information on the Worker’s Party demands. For this, he feared for his life.

                    My mother was a university student in Budapest, and took part in the student uprisings.

                    They escaped into Austria and spent seven months in various refugee camps before setting sail from Holland to Canada in June 1957.

                    I conducted a series of interviews with my father when he became elderly, and asked many detailed questions about what he experienced. I also asked him, in his opinion, having lived under Soviet Communism in Hungary, a Mixed Socialist/Capitalist system in Canada and then a Capitalist system in The United States, which one did he feel was the best and with what type of leadership? He said that Socialism in Hungary, as demanded by the Worker’s Party would have been the best system, coupled with a Benevolent Dictator and a democratically organized workplace (worker cooperatives/councils).

                    I hope that sheds some light on my parents’ experience.

  5. Ulysses

    “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.”

    Very important point!

    One option is to spend less time looking for “leadership” from the political classes, and more time constructing grass-roots solutions to pressing local problems. Then, the activist citizen demands help from the politician in specific circumstances, for specific ends. Thus avoiding being a follower, bamboozled by empty promises and rhetoric, awaiting instructions from the top.

  6. Moneta

    What I find most fascinating is the generalized strong belief in free will when it is obvious our entire way of thinking is shaped by our genetics and the data that has been registered by our senses and stored in our brain and body.

    1. Barry Fay

      Really? Did you come up with that on your own?

      You do see, of course, how you are simply equating computers and people (hardware = genes, software = data “stored” in our brains). This is a mistake. People can be of two minds about things – know what I mean?

      1. Moneta

        My point is not whether people can be of two minds about things but about the real control they have over their thoughts.

        The number of people who think one can just wake up in the morning and change one’s attitude just by snapping one’s fingers is astounding… this goes to show how little most people know about how the brain works.

        Reading about heuristics is a real eye opener. Something as simple as reading with the left eye, the right eye or both at the same time can generate different thoughts even if it’s the same text because of how the information travels in the brain…

        1. Mel

          Well, if you set yourself up on one side of the stage, and your thoughts on the other, and propose to have a debate, of course you’ll lose. You can’t win a debate without your thoughts. That’s just how debates work.

    2. Vatch

      I want to believe in free will because I dislike the notion that I might be an automaton. But I have great difficulty escaping the reality of causation; things happen because of other things that happened previously. I have yet to encounter a persuasive argument in favor of free will. I have seen good arguments against a particular definition of determinism — that is, the sort of determinism in which we can determine the future based upon what has already happened. Existence is enormously complex, and it is in practice impossible to reliably determine how the present will cause events in the future. But I have never seen a good argument that free will can alter physical causation.

      1. MoiAussie

        So why not just take free will to mean the general impossibility of determining in advance with certainty how a given human or other higher organism will respond to a set of stimuli/circumstances, including the case where that human is you and you’re also the one trying to make the determination.

        1. Vatch

          Well, maybe I’m pedantic, but I don’t think that indeterminism and free will are the same. My inability to determine what causes my behavior is not the same as believing that I am free from my genetic heritage and the events in my local environment.

        2. witters

          Why not say something like this: “Freewill is not a scientific hypothesis”.

          And there is clearly more to life and the world than scientific hypothesising.

          (For instance, if I say “The Rolling Stones are the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in World History”, I am not making a scientific hypothesis. If I say “I believe in God”, I am not – despite Richard Dawkins’ hectoring – offering or making a scientific hypothesis. So perhaps when I shout “I’m free!” I’m not doing that either.)

  7. Carolinian

    Intellectuals, under pressure to take consistent public stances, may become ideologically monolithic.

    Not just intellectuals. We are all tribal and social and driven by the need to belong. In the old movie The Front the accused communist played by Woody Allen says he joined the movement as a way of meeting girls. Religion, another form of ideology, is also highly social and there was a time when the social life of small southern towns was organized around churches and in some places that is still true.

    But surely the role of the intellectuals, if no one else, is to take the painful social decision to eschew ideology since ideologies are bunk. Back in the day people scoffed at the “brainwashed” communists but capitalism is also an ideology if one supported by a large body of pseudoscience. Surely only real science will save us although this is not a view that is popular among humanities majors (I am one). It’s time for something new–something that isn’t an ideology.

    1. m. sam

      Rather than try to escape any concept of ideology you should reconcile yourself to its existence as a part of human consciousness. And ideology is nothing but a “working theory”, and everyone has “working theories”. Not just about politics, but about how to go about your every day life. If we didn’t have any sort of ideology we wouldn’t even be able to get through our day, too busy constantly working out what is the next step of our actions.

      No, nobody should be looking for a “no ideology” or “anti-ideology”, because any “anti-ideology” is just an ideology with a different name. And worse, it’s an ideology that declares itself to be the one true “working theory”. Just like neoliberalism’s clarion call, “There Is No Alternative,” the ideology of “no ideology” seeks nothing but to destroy all others, and ultimately is just another dead end enclosed upon itself.

      1. Carolinian

        Ideology is a belief system, not a theory system. Dogma is implied. MS Encarta:

        i·de·ol·o·gy [dee ólləjee, ìddee ólləjee]
        (plural i·de·ol·o·gies)
        1. system of social beliefs: a closely organized system of beliefs, values, and ideas forming the basis of a social, economic, or political philosophy or program
        2. meaningful belief system: a set of beliefs, values, and opinions that shapes the way a person or a group such as a social class thinks, acts, and understands the world

        1. m. sam

          You seem to be implying that there are two categories, “belief system” and “theory system”, and they are mutually exclusive. While I find that an amusing (if naive, no offense intended) distinction, I no less see how it refutes my assertion that the concept of being anti-ideology is no less ideological than the real thing.

          The funniest thing about having an anti-ideology is that it is entirely un-self-conscious. Where someone with a self-declared ideology can change their mind about it (as in their “working theory”, their “system of beliefs and values” as you insist it be defined, proves to be unsuccessful in its aim), but one who is not conscious of even having an ideology (of holding to a “system of beliefs and values”), they are much less likely to be able to change it. And that perhaps makes it the most dogmatic kind of ideology that a person can have.

        2. m. sam

          Sorry, it should read:

          You seem to be implying that there are two categories, “belief system” and “theory system”, and they are mutually exclusive. While I find that an amusing (if naive, no offense intended) distinction, I do not see how it refutes my assertion that the concept of being anti-ideology is no less ideological than the real thing.

          The funniest thing about having an anti-ideology is that it is entirely un-self-conscious. Where someone with a self-declared ideology can change their mind about it (as in their “working theory”, their “system of beliefs and values” as you insist it be defined, proves to be unsuccessful in its aim), but one who is not conscious of even having an ideology (of holding to a “system of beliefs and values”), they are much less likely to be able to change it. And that perhaps makes it the most dogmatic kind of ideology that a person can have.

          1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

            Your last point is one that I wish was more widely discussed. A classic example is the sort of technocratic ideology that claims that it is all about “pragmatism” and being free from “ideology.” But there are plenty of others.

          2. Carolinian

            You are just redefining the word “ideology” to mean what you want it to mean. As the definition I so helpfully supplied says, it is a belief system held, not by an individual, but by a social group. The point I was trying to make is that you can only arrive at the truth by thinking for yourself. I was expressing–my opinion of course–that a scientific approach to problems is far more productive than trying to refine pre-digested doctrine. It’s possible those great thinkers of the past really didn’t know enough to be very helpful. We have problems now they never could have imagined.

            My rejection of ideology was not itself an ideology because it is my own conclusion, arrived at individually, not socially. It is an opinion, another word you can find in the dictionary.

            1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

              Carolinian, I’m not taking a side in your argument with m. sam, and my earlier comment on this subthread wasn’t meant that way, either. However, I wanted to comment that “ideology” is a notoriously tricky word. It has a number of meanings or connotations that are in widespread use, and that are not necessarily contained in a given dictionary definition. The case of “ideology” is particularly on my mind of late because I’ve notice that certain authors (François Furet being an example) use it in ways freighted with substantial additional content, and it then becomes important for a critical reader to disentangle what is going on.

              All of this to say that: there are certain words where the dictionary definition doesn’t necessarily settle a given dispute, and then it becomes necessary to look at the patterns of actual use – or just acknowledge that two people are using a word differently.

            2. m. sam

              In no way am I redefining ideology to mean what I want it to mean, how silly to suggest it. I only said an ideology is nothing but a “working theory”, but you have blown it out or proportion to a rather senseless distraction. But since dictionary definitions seem important, here is one you should see:

              noun: analogy; plural noun: analogies

              1. a comparison between two things, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification.
              2. a correspondence or partial similarity.
              3. a thing that is comparable to something else in significant respects.

              But no matter, it’s beside the point. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the ideology of using a scientific approach to solve problems. It has a practicality of great usefulness, but by no means should it replace, or can it even replace, all other ideologies since there are hard limits to its practicality.

              I an curious about your last phrase, you make it sound like one can’t have both an ideology and a opinion, or “reaching your own conclusion” can somehow be separated from ideologies you hold (any “closely organized system of beliefs” which is something you should think about more as someone who seemingly believes they do not have any).

              For one thing, (now I am going to warn you in advance, I am using another analogy which you may not be able to fit inside your your rigid dictionary definitions), another way of thinking of ideologies is they are like rules of thumb. We use rules of thumb, conspicuously and even unconsciously, to form opinions, solve any number of problems we encounter in a given day, or even to decide who to vote for.

              If you use no rules of thumb (or, in other words, have no ideology) when forming opinions, how do you ensure all aspects of your opinions are empirically accurate? I mean, you must have some very rigorous methodology if you completely eliminate all “systems of values and beliefs” from your consciousness when forming your (what must be) totally original opinions… am I wrong?

              1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

                At this point, judging from the last couple of comments that each of you tried to post, this discussion isn’t going in an interesting direction. Any further comments along those lines will lead to moderation.

  8. Barry Fay

    Forgot to mention what a fabulous article this is. This style of quasi anecdotal writing is so effective when done right. Reminds me of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein.

  9. Watt4Bob

    At times in our country, bankers have deputized themselves and carried guns with murderous intent.

    I’m talking about the employers’ organization known as the Citizens Alliance who took to the streets in Minneapolis in 1934 eager to get some licks in against striking truck drivers.

    I’m mentioning this in order to explain how one might feel upon hearing that a car-load of white supremacists in camouflage carry guns to a Black Lives Matter protest and end up shooting protestors.

    When push comes to shove, when men tear up the cobble stones and start throwing them at men armed with guns, it is not uncommon to ask one’s self, “which side am I on?”

    At some point, It might become physically impossible for a thinking, feeling person to vote for the perennial ‘lessor evil’, as Moneta has pointed out above;

    it is obvious our entire way of thinking is shaped by our genetics and the data that has been registered by our senses and stored in our brain and body.

    There comes a point where which side of the line you stand on is the result of a visceral urge, a physical reality that can no longer be ignored.

    Hungry children are often a part of the situation that makes men forget their rugged individualism and start identifying with the men throwing rocks, what ever they are called, or call themselves.

  10. PKMKII

    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.

    Which we see happening in America now. The system and the economics have become so broken, yet neither mainstream party is doing much about it. The Republicans either embrace the status quo or offer up forms of pseudo-resistance (Trumpism, Libertarianism) that put the aesthetics of revolt onto a defense of the traditional. The Democrats, in their squishy third way, give platitudes and empty gestures towards reform, but practically are unwilling to rock the boat. So the void is filled with the left movements of the DSA, Green Party, Our Revolution, etc., as the only ones really railing against the rot.

  11. justanotherprogressive

    Sigh….many of you relate Communism with what became the Communist power structure. If you think what the Soviet Union had was communism, you are dead wrong- what they had was a form of totalitarianism – which has nothing at all to do with actual Communism. To them Communism was just an “excuse”.

    And yes, on the other side, many of those who believe in Communism have turned it into a utopia dream. Communism isn’t that either and never will be… and no other “ism” will ever be that either….

    Communism has bounds in which it works – ignore those bounds and you get the Soviet Union. Communism works well for COMMUNES – small groups of people who band themselves together against the power structure and are willing to make decisions and share for the survival of their group. I’m not sure it could ever work on a grand scale because while most people will share with their neighbors, will they share with people they don’t know half the globe away?

    Marx had many great ideas, but he went so wrong when he thought violence was the way to destroy the power structure and that the people would be able to regain the power after that violence. Nope, violence just begets more violence and it creates a power vacuum that someone will jump into before you know what is happening – it doesn’t give you what you dream for…..

    We can bash “isms” all we want, but they really aren’t the problem. The problem is that they ALL fail when power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few….so how do you deal with that?

    1. Mike

      Sigh… this reminds me of a quote from Arthur Miller:

      “Look, we’re all the same; a man is a fourteen-room house – in the bedroom he’s asleep with his intelligent wife, in the living room he’s rolling around with some bare-ass girl, in the library he’s paying his taxes, in the yard he’s raising tomatoes, and in the cellar he’s making a bomb to blow it all up.”

      – that covers all the “sides” that humans (not just men) present when they are the victims of societal building that realizes only part of our aspirations. No society can answer for all of us, and cannot. Capitalism certainly realizes the acquisitive and power-seeking aspect of individual behavior, and many sublimate their cooperative side to co-exist within such an environment. Mental health suffers when no outlet for different behavior is allowed. The same for the reverse.

      Is there the ability to build a system that allows for competition that is limited to its minimal destructiveness, yet allow for those who need and desire the security and (maybe) stability of a socialized , dare I say “communal”, world? Can we ever live and let live without colonizing the “other”?

    2. Yves Smith

      This is revisionist history. I had a third generation Communist roommate in the 1970s and she and her family (prominent intellectuals) were backers of Stalinism (and called it Stalinism) and saw it as a legitimate embodiment of Communism. She was active in the SDS and the South African Solidarity movement and I know many of her fellow activists had similar views.

  12. DJG

    Another wonderful comment from those below the video by someone named Roberto Marchi in response to a comment by a young woman named Julia Dat who asks why Gaber’s performance moves her so much when she hadn’t even been born at the time of some of the events:

    Gaber è stato un grande artista. Nelle sue canzoni e nei suoi testi si nasconde molto dell’uomo moderno: la sua bellezza e la sua miseria. Leggeva molto, soprattutto testi di sociologia e di psicanalisi, discipline che allora avevano grande successo, era intriso della cultura del tempo. Ma aveva anche la capacità di guardarsi dentro e vedere la contraddizione che si cela in tutti noi. Quella autoironia era anche una dolorosa, laica constatazione della natura umana. La metafora dell’impossibilità di volare era presente in molti suoi testi. Perchè allora ti commuove? La risposta Julia è dentro di te. Perchè ti commuove?

    my translation: Gaber was a great artist. In his songs and in his scripts are hidden a great deal about modern humankind–its beauty, its misery. He used to read a lot, especially writing about sociology and psychoanalysis, disciplines that by then had produced great outcomes, and he was engaged in the culture of the times. But he also had the ability of looking inside himself, seeing the contradiction that is concealed in all of us. His irony about himself was also a painful, un-religious statement about human nature. The metaphor about the impossibility of flight was present in many of his writings. So why does his work still move you? The answer, Julia, is within you. Why does he move you?

    And a comment: What Gaber gets at in a way that our lofty political discourse wants to avoid is that freedom is something collective, for everyone to enjoy together (which is why my Italian friends, invariably lefty, are also great cooks). Braying about your individual freedom to be blahblahblah doesn’t involve you in the work, the constant work, of maintaining the free society.

    And an observation: Gaber’s piece is also an example of the searing melancholy that is part of Italian culture, which is also the source of Rossana Rossanda’s turmoils and existential doubts, something that is never, ever shown to tourists, who are there in Italy for the sunlight and tomato sauce and the ever-smiling ever-flirty Italians.

  13. Mike

    Many of the reasons for joining the CP work for all political parties. Why shouldn’t they? In a system that produces people who seek out winners (vs. losers), allows for individual positive recognition for good works in cooperative settings (especially when the individual can perform outstanding enough work to rise within the ranks to hold “position”), while seeking financial gain either for the group or for the individual, how can any party screen to eliminate this component? I knew several people who joined to meet girls/boys… duh!

    To me, the major shortcoming of communist thought showed up in its first major political organization. Marx had to goad, upbraid, and finally write most of the political expressions of the First International. Did that not portend the future of Lenin and Stalin as irreplaceable talents? This system looks to leaders who show skills, then is surprised when they go off the rails by petering out or succumbing to its various corrupt means. The opposition must work within the existing system, and usually reflects this environment, and its influence will certainly come to the fore if it is given space.

    Organizational structure can limit this, but what freedom of expression is lost then? All given that you have an angry base of citizens in a country that support the ‘revolution”, with reasons that may not be common to other nations (or the timing of effects is off and not resonant), so the international aspect is lost unless forced upon the parties from outside. Anger can only feed a revolution until power is gained, and then we have to eat, sleep, and get healed. Politics in large nations leaves no leeway for possible alternatives, unless we come up with some.

  14. Harold

    There were many many Italian towns with Communist mayors. Their administrations were seen as less corrupt, as I recall.

    1. Darius

      The most telling answer to my ears is that all the other options were unacceptable and that the Communists in Italy presented a credible choice.

      I used to be a typical American Cold War liberal. But the wretchedness of our options in the US has kindled a late-life interest in Marx.

      Still, an earlier thread about MMT influenced my thinking. I’m not interested in revolution for its own sake. I just want universal direct benefits. If someone wants to open their own fruit stand, they should be able to do so. It need not be under common ownership. But some of the bigger things, like banks, should be.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        I know what you’re getting at but here’s a little wishful thinking – if everyone were able to open their own bank, and everyone, not just the bankers, could print their own money at will, we might realize how ridiculous the whole notion of money is and do away with it all together.

        Hakuna matata ;)

      2. Adar

        This stimulating discussion makes me wonder if any political revolution has ever succeeded without violence to overcome the resistance of those it is supposed to benefit. As far as I can see, the workers and peasants have always been the most conservative parts of society, and the French, Russian, and other revolutionaries handled their resistance to change very roughly. Even the Americans treated the large numbers of royalists with physical violence, expropriation of property, and exile. In Zola’s novel La Terre, there is an amusing episode when the village where the action takes takes place is visited by a member of the Paris Commune, who describes how wonderful it will be when land is redistributed.The suspicious peasants say, well what if we don’t want to do that? The angry communard replies “then we will FORCE you to be happy!”

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          Zola is possibly referencing a famous passage from Rousseau’s Social Contract:

          Whoever refuses to obey the general will will be compelled to do so by the entire body; this means simply that he will be forced to be free.

          One historian of the French Revolution commented that this passage ended up becoming wonderfully convenient during the Terror.

  15. edr

    Well, we could try the MMT thing and see if it works.

    We open a bank and each put in our own money. Lets say the person who puts 10,000 at leverage 10×1 gets 100,000, can pay off the balance on their home and start a small business.

    The person who puts in 50,000 gets 500,000 and the person who puts in 100,000 gets $million, etc.

    Sort of like starting a cooperative with MMT and BANK strategies and seeing what happens. And, we wouldn’t even be stretching the limits of leverage to pre-2008 level o 16×1 or 48×1 whatever the real leverage limits were.

    Also, the FED could lend us even more money at 0% interest that we could lend out at 4% to solar or small businesses with government contracts,….

    An experiment..

  16. edr

    The next step would be going to your favorite charity and teaching them how to do it…. The can automatically leverage up all the contributions they receive…

  17. Keith Howard

    Thank you to NC for keeping this up so long that I finally got curious enough to read it. I’ll point it out to some friends. Best regards.

    1. Richard

      Exactly. I just read the oration by Gaber, and wanted to thank Outis for sharing it. It’s remarkable.

  18. skk

    The Catholic and Communist divide in Italy was brought to my attention by the books “The Little World of Don Camillo” – about the post war period in a small town in the Po Valley that had a Communist mayor called Peppone and the proverbial priest – Don Camillo. O yeah Christ talks to the priest too – usually far more sympathetic towards the communist mayor that the priest was.

    It was made into a TV series in the UK. Worth checking out.

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