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The Lost Partisans

Today Italy celebrates Liberation Day. But the true spirit of the antifascist resistance has long been obscured.

Italy’s April 25 bank holiday marks the anniversary of the country’s liberation from fascism. This day in 1945, antifascist partisan units freed the northern industrial centers of Milan and Turin from the grip of Hitler and Mussolini’s remaining loyalists, after Allied forces had swept through the country. Just three days later, in a humiliating epitaph to the twenty-year regime, partisans captured and executed il Duce and his entourage, hanging them upside down in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto.

Marking the partisans’ victory over both German occupation and Italian fascism, April 25 is a patriotic holiday that honors the deeds of an armed minority. The festival was first celebrated in 1946, as the parties of the National Liberation Committee (CLN) from Christian Democrats to Socialists and Communists sought to identify themselves with “universal” values of freedom, democracy, and national unity.

Tellingly, Liberation Day would be celebrated on the day that the CLN for upper Italy declared its power, not the date of the Allies’ final liberation of Italian territory.

However, while the CLN parties’ claim to represent “a whole people in arms” delimited a broad national community excluding only the last fascist loyalists — held to be German stooges, and not true patriots — April 25 has never really lived up to its pretentions of national unity.

This is not only because the remaining battalions of the far right have their own war commemorations at Mussolini’s Predappio hometown, but also because the armed resistance has always been principally identified in popular culture with Italy’s once-mass Communist Party (PCI).

Although still today presidents and prime ministers commemorate April 25 as a founding moment of Italian democracy, the street rallies marking this holiday above all represent the politics that did not shape the postwar republic.

Whereas 60 percent of partisans fought in PCI-organized units, the Communist Party shared the CLN’s political leadership with Christian Democrats, liberals, socialists, and others; and as the intense antifascist mobilization turned into the foundation of a parliamentary democracy, old elites soon reasserted their control over the state.

Indeed, if the CLN parties governed Italy in coalition after liberation — together drafting a constitution and founding a republic — by May 1947 Cold War pressures forced the PCI out of office. As justice minister in 1946, the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti had issued a sweeping amnesty applying even to fascists, in order to pacify social tensions; yet as the Left was sidelined, partisans themselves became the target of political trials pursued by ex-fascist judges and policemen.

The gap between the partisan fighters and the postwar establishment was further symbolized on April 25, 1947, with the dissolution of the second-most resistance force, the republican-socialist Action Party.

The anticommunist counteroffensive following liberation peaked in July 1948, with an assassination attempt against Togliatti. The far-right assailant’s attack not only sparked an unruly general strike but was also a trigger for many ex-partisans who had held onto their weapons, who mounted widespread armed occupations of workplaces and police stations in subsequent days.

Frightened PCI leaders feared provoking a civil war like in Greece, where British-backed royalists bloodily crushed the Communist partisans after 1945. With the party thus reining in its more adventurist members, and Italy becoming a founder member of NATO in 1949, the hope of resistance turning into revolution quickly dissipated.

Having been the main resistance party, the PCI was thus condemned to an ambivalent relationship with the state born of April 25, and whose constitution it helped to write. The country’s second party — securing between 22 and 34 percent of the vote in every election until its 1991 collapse — the PCI was barred from power-sharing by Italy’s strategic position in the Western bloc, even despite leader Enrico Berlinguer’s 1970s efforts to reach a “historic compromise” with Christian Democracy.

Indeed, if April 25 is still today marked by rallies appealing to the constitution’s promise of a “democracy founded on labor,” for four decades the state was more than anything based on structural Christian Democratic dominance, the anticommunist linchpin of all Italian governments until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Although the Christian Democrats had been the PCI’s partners in the CLN and then in government in 1943–47, they had made a much lesser military contribution to the resistance, and on anniversaries like April 25 tended to emphasize the US Army’s role in liberating Italy far more than did the Communists.

Without doubt, the partisan war was greatly less important to Christian Democratic identity: a big-tent party of many factions, but also strong anticommunist tendencies, its further right-wing shore tended to portray the resistance as a bloody endeavor essentially unnecessary to the Allies’ success in freeing the country.

As such, whereas the Christian Democrats’ internal cohesion and claim to political authority in Cold War Italy was heavily premised on their binary opposition to the PCI, the Communists’ central means of asserting their democratic legitimacy was the commemoration of their non-sectarian, patriotic record in the war against Nazism.

This stemmed from resistance strategy itself: the Communist-led working class played the leading role in mobilizing for the patriotic struggle, but, as Togliatti explained in an April 1945 circular, PCI partisans establishing CLN authority in each location should not “impose changes in a socialistic or communist sense,” even if acting alone. The PCI had committed to a common antifascist cause, not sought to enforce its own control.

The party had thus used mass mobilization to secure itself a place in institutional life, but without antagonizing other democratic forces. Indeed, the PCI press of 1943–45 (and later party mythology) cast even the most evidently class-war aspects of the resistance — mass strikes, land occupations, draft resistance — in “patriotic” terms, a mass working-class contribution to a progressive national movement more than an assertion of workers’ anticapitalist class interests.

It was this conjugation of patriotism, democracy, and a sense of workers’ centrality to national reconstruction that informed the constitutional promise of a “democratic republic founded on labor.” In this same productivist spirit, in the 1945–47 coalition the PCI backed wage freezes and implemented an effective strike ban, the better to rebuild Italian industry.

That said, while the PCI portrayed its gradualist, institution-centric “Italian road to socialism” as an extension of Antonio Gramsci’s thinking, it in fact tended to invert Gramsci’s idea of hegemony, as leading socialist Lelio Basso emphasized in a 1965 piece for Critica Marxista.

“Notwithstanding the working-class movement’s organizational preponderance in the resistance, it was our opponents who managed to hegemonize it politically,” he explained. “National or antifascist unity had a sense in terms of the pure goal of winning the war,” but “only with a tighter working-class unity over immediate postwar goals could the workers’ movement have really hegemonized the liberation struggle, imposing its own spirit, stamp and will, its own ideology and objectives upon it.”

Founded on Labor

Indeed, by the time of Basso’s article the PCI strategy of a gradually expanding “progressive democracy” had begun to ring hollow, the party’s commitment to republican legality clashing with its Cold War reduction to an oppositional role.

Christian Democracy reigned supreme, and the far right was also seemingly on the rise, with Prime Minister Fernando Tambroni’s 1960 effort to form government resting on fascist MSI support, as well as the provocative attempt to stage an MSI congress in antifascist Genoa that same year. If violent protests blocked these efforts to rehabilitate the far right, the “democratic republic founded on labor” was not living up to the promise of the resistance.

The weakening of the PCI dream of progressive democracy also coincided with changes in the shape of the working class, with the high industrial growth rates of Italy’s 1950s-1960s “economic miracle” drawing masses of workers from the underdeveloped south to the factories of the north.

These workers, on the fringes of the traditional labor movement and suffering a semi-racialized discrimination, were central to the attentions of the 1960s New Left arising off the back of the PCI’s impasse.

Young and coming from a south little-marked by the resistance, these workers had a profound cultural split from the largely older, more skilled northern workers for whom the antifascist strikes of March 1943 represented a key moment of collective memory and class pride.

Tellingly, the operaista and autonomist literature (broadly conceived) of this period, breaking with the Communist Party’s rhetorical preoccupations, was notable for its lack of interest in resistance history, tending to see April 25 as a kind of PCI jamboree attached to patriotic-institutional politics, distant from the interests of the workers they sought to influence.

To the extent that the resistance did enter into the extra-parliamentary left’s consciousness, this was above all thanks to armed-struggle groups and their efforts to replicate the most spectacular military actions of 1943–45, also inspired by a wider veneration of guerrilla struggles in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Not only the Red Brigades’ invocation of the “continuing resistance” but also Giangiacomo Feltrinelli’s creation of Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana (GAP) consciously imitating the similarly named wartime PCI terrorist cells reflected the desire to recapture the militancy of that period.

What rarely went considered in any of this was the political critique of the PCI strategy that had already in the 1940s been advanced by the most radical wing of the Italian resistance. Indeed, even the 1970s extra-parliamentary left tended to invoke the most militant forms of struggle from the war period (mass strikes, sabotage, terrorism) as abstract evidence of the potential for social change, rather than recover the history of those movements who had sought (and failed) to challenge the politics of national unity as such.

This was the reason why even a 1970s Guevarist paramilitary group like the GAP could copy the name of 1940s partisan units that were in fact entirely PCI-controlled and subordinate to its patriotic alliance strategy.

It seems that these groups were little aware that in 1943–45 there had also been revolutionary antifascist forces outside of the CLN, involved in armed struggle yet excluded from institutional resistance memory. Certainly, in a broad sense we could say that the symbolism of even PCI-led partisans (with their Bella Ciao, Bandiera Rossa, Fischia il Vento, red neckerchiefs . . .) and resistants’ individual motives for joining the struggle often reflected hope in some sort of socialist change, even if defined in vague terms.

But there were also thousands-strong 1940s movements who organized with this explicit political perspective, rejecting national unity in favor of class warfare — from Stella Rossa in Turin to Rome’s Bandiera Rossa and Naples’s “red” CGL union.

These were no minoritarian sects: in fact, Bandiera Rossa was the largest resistance force in Wehrmacht-occupied Rome. Arising from clandestine groups that had formed in the fascist period while PCI leaders were still in exile, and combining militant antifascism with an almost millenarian faith in imminent revolution, this autodidact-led movement built something of a mass base in the capital’s borgate slums in winter 1943–44, waging nine months of urban warfare at the cost of some 186 fatalities.

Believing that Red Army successes on the Eastern Front reflected the world-historic advance of socialism (“turning war into revolution like Lenin in 1917”) this curiously ultra-Stalinist movement ultimately entered into bitter clashes with the official PCI, which sought to infiltrate and destroy its organization.

Indeed, the movement’s radicalism threatened not only the PCI’s internal discipline, but also the orderly transition to democracy itself: as one military police report warned the Allied forces approaching the Italian capital in May 1944, Bandiera Rossa had “the secret aim, together with the other far-Left parties, of seizing control of the city, overthrowing the monarchy and government, and implementing a full communist program while the other parties are preoccupied with chasing out the Germans.”

The subversive threat these communists posed saw their militias (deemed by British intelligence to have been “mainly drawn from the criminal classes”) immediately banned upon the Allies’ liberation of the capital.

The suppression of Bandiera Rossa’s incendiary press and the forcible disarming of its partisans was no isolated case: the state’s assertion of a monopoly of violence and criminalization of its opponents was, in a sense, the founding act of republican legality, with the Allies combining with the CLN parties simultaneously to liberate territory and to impose a quick return to social peace.

The state born of the resistance was, therefore, also a state born of the neutering of the resistance; the channeling of antagonistic class warfare into working-class representation in the state via the Communist and Socialist parties. Such was the democratic republic “founded on labor.”

Postmodern April 25

Today the PCI, self-declared “party of the resistance,” is dead, much like its Socialist and Christian Democratic counterparts. The collapse of the USSR exploded the Italian system’s Cold War binary in 1991, with the removal of the Communist threat finally detonating the rotten corruption networks that had so long flourished in its Christian-Democratic rival. If April 25 still lives on as a day of memorialization, it does so absent of the parties who actually took part in the struggle.

With ever-reduced ranks of surviving veterans, and the Left in a dire state of collapse, the resistance’s role in Italian public life seems to be on the wane. Indeed, the end of the once mass PCI has clearly handed the initiative to the long-time opponents of the antifascist cause.

Not only have revisionist historians increasingly sought to establish an equivalence of the crimes perpetrated by each side in the “civil war,” but the last Berlusconi government even toyed with getting rid of the Liberation Day bank holiday.

Simultaneous to this, resistance memory is also undermined from within, as former PCI-ers adapt the old slogans to their now neoliberal politics, as in president Giorgio Napolitano’s April 25 intervention in 2013. Speaking at a former SS prison, the ex-Communist called on the incoming government to show “the same courage, resolve, and unity that were vital to winning the resistance battle” in dealing with the country’s economic crisis.

The coalition he was orchestrating was a lash-up of the centrist Democrats with Silvio Berlusconi and Goldman Sachs technocrat Mario Monti; national unity had now became the banner of austerian collective belt-tightening.

No wonder, then, that April 25 seems increasingly distant from the concerns of today’s unemployed and precarious youth — the “national day” instead living on mainly in the memory of the various fragments of the former PCI.

Yet with that party’s hegemonic project dead, it seems unlikely that talk of “defending constitutional values” or invoking “national unity” or the “republican ethics” of seventy years ago can play any role in the regeneration of the Left.

If anything, it is dissecting and questioning this legacy that can return the memory of the partisans to its proper place, turning April 25 from a day of national unity into a day of anti-institutional antagonism.