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Remembering Pier Paolo Pasolini

A look at the life and politics of Pier Paolo Pasolini, heterodox communist.

Pier Paolo Pasolini at Antonio Gramsci's tomb, 1970. Wikimedia

The day after Pier Paolo Pasolini’s violent 1975 murder, L’Unità, the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI) newspaper, described him as “vero militante,” a true militant. Just a few decades prior, a column in the same paper caused Pasolini’s expulsion from the PCI.

In 1949, local party leader Ferdinando Mautino denounced the “deleterious influences of certain ideological and philosophical trends of the various Gides and Sartres … who pose as progressives, but in reality welcome the most deleterious aspects of bourgeois degeneration.” The PCI threw Pasolini out on account of these “deleterious influences,” but the real issue was his homosexuality.

A heterodox communist, Pasolini remained a fellow traveler of the Communist Party for his entire adult life. His complicated relationship with the PCI mirrored his interactions with the rest of the Left in Italy and abroad, which ranged from his skeptical support for student movements to his almost uncritical infatuation with the American New Left.

In the Anglophone world, Pasolini is best known as a filmmaker. Cinema was his main, but never sole, activity between 1960 and 1975. His novels and poems are also translated and studied, but they receive far less critical attention. Some of his theater productions — a minor but not unimportant part of his work — have also appeared in English. But he is far less known as a public intellectual, the role that gained him a long-lasting place in Italian culture.

Pasolini’s Rome

Isolated from the PCI (who were still largely anti-gay at the time) and ostracized in his own town, when the scandal around his homosexuality erupted, Pasolini left his home in Northern Italy for Rome. It was a new beginning: he forged a strong relationship with the city and especially the borgate, the peripheral areas inhabited by a deprived underclass, which he called a grandiose plebeian metropolis. The borgate inspired many of Pasolini’s novels and films, but, because it looked to him like the struggling Third World, it also became the site of his political and cultural work.

We should not look for a Marxist agenda in novels like The Street Kids or A Violent Life or in films like Accattone and Mamma Roma, all of which deal with Rome’s lower classes. Instead, Pasolini used these works to present an ongoing transition: the end of an old epoch that belonged to Southern peasants slowly losing their century-old traditions and to Romans who had lived as a community without being absorbed by the Vatican or other powers.

Pasolini was interested in these outcasts, whom he presented with a sense of nostalgia. As he said in his last interview, given hours before his death, he missed “those poor and real people who struggle to defeat the master [padrone] without ever becoming that master. Since they were excluded from everything, they remained uncolonized.”

He found the culture that killed the old epoch no improvement: dehumanizing, homogenizing, and corrupting capitalism, a genocide (as he called it) that emptied the borgate of its residents, who had their own language and their own, not-always political, solidarity. Today, the ones who could not become petit bourgeois lost their sense of belonging as the world changed around them.

Unlike a number of other Italian leftist intellectuals, many of whom had a quasi-mythic vision of the working class and the underclass or saw them as monolithic, Pasolini actually knew the people he wrote about. If his views sometimes had a subtle traditionalism, they did not fall into the ignorance of vast sectors of the Left or what he called in an article on Israel–Palestine the “[Communists’] traditional and never admitted hatred against lumpenproletariats and poor populations.” In 1959, he invited the PCI to become “‘the party of the poor people’: the party, we may say, of the lumpenproletarians.”

Pasolini and the Communists

In his poem “The Ashes of Gramsci,” Pasolini imagined a dialogue with the PCI founder in which he describes feeling simultaneously with Gramsci and against him. The poem expresses his internal contradictions, one of the most discussed aspects of Pasolini’s life and work. The eponymous book was published in 1957, but Pasolini had written the poem in 1954, before the watershed year of 1956 when Soviet tanks arrived in Budapest, causing many PCI members and fellow travelers to break with the party.

But neither 1956 nor 1954 mark the first signs of tension between Pasolini and the Communist Party. In the years after World War II, Pasolini had become a political activist in the Friuli region, which bordered Communist Yugoslavia. For the first and only time in his life, he was a full-fledged PCI militant and respected local leader, who attended meetings in Paris, Hungary, and across Italy as a party delegate.

But his stature within the party did not prevent him from criticizing it. In 1945, his brother Guido, himself a partisan, was killed by a Communist brigade in the so-called Porzûs massacre, one of the several much-debated events that took place in the final phase of the war. As early as 1948, Pasolini advised his comrades to recognize the party’s responsibility, but, at the same time, he strongly condemned those figures — Christian Democrats included — who used his brother’s death to fuel right-wing propaganda.

Pasolini’s relationship with the PCI became most strained in 1956, when he published Polemics in Verse, an attack on orthodox Communist intellectuals. Those he critiqued reacted as one would imagine, but, curiously, the fiercest attack came from Franco Fortini, another heterodox thinker not affiliated with the PCI and moreover Pasolini’s dear friend and constant interlocutor. Conversely, he grew closest to the PCI at the end of that decade, when the Communist cultural world embraced his second novel, A Violent Life.

Between 1960 and 1965 he wrote a column for the PCI’s news magazine Vie Nuove. In its pages, he interacted with the readers, members or sympathizers of the party, commenting on a wide variety of topics, from the role of intellectuals to Hungarian literature and Brigitte Bardot’s suicide attempt. This interesting and little-read (especially outside of Italy) corpus was published in 1977 as The Beautiful Flags.

Despite this collaboration, Pasolini never became a full-fledged organic intellectual. He always looked for different audiences. In the last phase of his life, he wrote for Il Corriere della Sera, then (and now) the main outlet of the Italian bourgeois establishment, which an independent journalist, Piero Ottone, was editing. There, Pasolini wrote the most polemical pieces of his life, perhaps feeling free from any constraints in this neutral, if not unfriendly, venue.

Even as his audience grew, the PCI remained Pasolini’s primary interlocutor. In June 1975, he declared that he would still vote for the party because it was “an island where critical consciousness is always desperately defended: and where human behavior has been still able to preserve the old dignity.” In his celebrated and often sloganistically invoked article from late 1974, titled “I Know,” he argued:

The PCI is the saving grace of Italy and its poor democratic institutions. The PCI is a clean country in a dirty country, an honest country in a dishonest country, an intelligent country in an idiotic country, an educated country in an ignorant country, a humanist country in a consumerist country.

In the last months of his life, Pasolini developed a close relationship with the Roman section of the FGCI, the PCI’s youth organization, accepting invitations to public meetings and even having members to his home.

One of them, Vincenzo Cerami read a speech that Pasolini was supposed to give at the congress of the Radical Party if he had lived — at that time a libertarian-minded force on the center-left. In that speech, Pasolini once again emphasized his Marxism, his support for the PCI, and his great hopes for the new generation of Communists.

When he died, another member of the Roman FGCI, Gianni Borgna, gave a speech at the funeral, which itself was party business: it began at the House of Cultures, then associated with the PCI.

As a nonorganic, heterodox intellectual of the Italian left, Pasolini understood before many others what role the intellectual would play not only in Italy but in the rest of the Western world. In one of the first issues of Officina, a cultural and political magazine that he created in 1959, he wrote that Marxist intellectuals were essentially living a contradiction. They spoke to a bourgeois class that did not want to listen. This situation required intellectuals to become spiritual guides. According to Pasolini this process was complete by 1968: the Left — not to mention the PCI — no longer had cultural hegemony. Instead, it belonged to industry. “The intellectual,” he wrote, “is where the cultural industry places him: why and how the market wants him.”

1968

During the summer of 1968, Pasolini launched a column for the non-leftist magazine Tempo. In the first installment, he wrote: “Surely the reader knows that I am communist: but he also knows that I am a fellow traveler of the PCI, a relationship that does not imply any reciprocal commitment (on the contrary, it is a quite tense relationship, and I have many enemies among the communists as I have among the bourgeois).” The article also mentioned a small party that had formed at the time, the Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity — Pasolini despised it because he considered it sectarian — and the Catholic left. But another, devastating interlocutor would emerge for Pasolini that year: the student movement.

Most people believe that Pasolini opposed the students and supported the police, a tenacious myth that has spread all over the world. A Film Maker’s Life, a 1971 documentary on Pasolini, includes a voice-over saying that “in a completely surprising and unexpected way, he takes the side of the police.”

The myth began with “The PCI to Young People,” a poem Pasolini composed after the Battle of Valle Giulia, which marked the beginning of the Italian 1968. In his usual contradictory style, he wrote that he sided with the cops because, unlike the students, they were the sons of the poor people. But, just a few lines after, he stated, “obviously we are against the police as an institution.” The end could not be more explicit: “Do I have to take into consideration the possibility of fighting the Civil War on your side, setting aside my old idea of Revolution?”

Reading the whole poem, and knowing the context, helps us understand how Pasolini’s opinion of the student movement was more complex and favorable than is commonly believed. Wu Ming 1, a member of the Wu Ming collective, concludes: “After having read all of this tirade (the entirety of it, not just the 4–5 extrapolated verses brandished like clubs by some thugs) one cannot conclude that Pasolini was with the police.”

But critics, especially on the Right, can pull random quotes not only to diminish an author but also to exploit him for their own reasons — something that conservatives in Italy and abroad have been doing to Antonio Gramsci for decades.

Pasolini, a fellow traveler rather than an organic militant (and how could he have been, given that he was almost fifty at the time and part of the previous leftist generation?), did indeed support the students and other movements that emerged in Italy in 1968–69. He said that the only two “democratic-revolutionary experiences” of the Italian people were the resistance and the student movement. He wrote as much in an open letter to the Italian prime minister, Giovanni Leone, when the police violently crushed the protests at the 1968 Venice Film Festival.

He repeatedly spoke and wrote against the police, but this does not mean that he opposed the individuals — often poor lumpenproletarians and peasants — who worked for the armed wing of the state. Italy was, after all, also where organizations like the Proletari in divisa (Proletarians in Uniform) tried to organize the armed forces and gained a certain traction during those years.

In 1971, Pasolini became director of the magazine of Lotta Continua, one of the organizations of the extra-parliamentary, post-‘68 Italian left, and he financed and helped shoot an investigative documentary on the fascist-planned Piazza Fontana bombing with this same organization.

Without this context, it is impossible to understand the Pasolini of the time. As Wu Ming 1 wrote:

What is left without context? A handful of images — fireflies, the end of peasants’ world, hippies’ homologated bodies — reduced to cliches and rendered harmless … fed by that same dominant culture that persecuted Pasolini, by the journalistic heirs of his slanderers and by the political heirs of those who attacked him in the streets.

The New Left

Pasolini’s relationship with non-Italian and non-European left deserves its own article, given the importance that the Third World — as both a place and a concept — assumed for the filmmaker. Already in 1961, he referred to Africa as “my only alternative” and wrote that Bandung was the capital of three-quarters of the world and half of Italy.

Pasolini’s view of the US left demonstrates that he needed to look for new ideas, new stimuli, new faces and places, and he sometimes exaggerated their importance. During his first visit to New York in the mid-1960s, he became convinced that the American New Left “will lead to an original form of non-Marxist Socialism.” He wrote that “SNCC, SDS, and many other movements that chaotically comprise the New American Left are reminders to me of Resistance times here in Italy,” and, after visiting Harlem, he claimed that “the core of the struggle for the Third World revolution is really America.”

In his famous invective on the Italian students in 1968 he pointed precisely to the American movement as an example to follow. We can therefore align Pasolini with the many intellectuals and artists who visited the United States in the second half of the 1960s in search of revolutionary movements, including another important Italian filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, who shot Zabriskie Point in California. We can also see Pasolini’s response to Harlem as part of a controversial and surely Eurocentric exploration of the Third World, his main locus of his thought between the end of the 1960s and his death.

At a time when Italian communists looked more East than West, Pasolini’s infatuation with the US left is worth mentioning. A lifelong communist, the poet and essayist wasn’t afraid to think against the party line, seeking out the most promising revolutionary movements as he remained open to the contradictions and challenges of an evolving capitalist world.

Remembering his incisive, heterodox thinking allows us to include Pasolini as part of the best traditions of the Italian left – with all its antinomies, contractions, divisions, but also its ability to inspire and influence the Global left.