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Livorno, the Rebel City Where Italy’s Communist Party Was Born

A hundred years years ago, Italy's Communist Party was founded in Livorno. The Tuscan port city had a long history of defying authority — and in the 1920s, its working-class neighborhoods were heartlands of the resistance against rising Fascism.

The Italian Socialist Party (PSI) held its national congress in Livorno on January 21, 1921.

As Benito Mussolini’s gangs conquered Italy in the early 1920s, Livorno proved a particular obstacle. Fascists complained of their difficulties infiltrating the Tuscan port city’s “popular neighborhoods, inhabited by extremists and their sympathizers.” In March 1922, local hierarchs cited a deeper reason, as they blamed “the Livorno population’s origins, largely made up of the many mongrel, escapee, refugee, Levantine, Jewish elements. Education and religion have never made inroads among this people … fertile terrain, then, for subversive ideas.”

For the police inspectorate, this posed the need for an offensive: to “mount continual raids … across whole neighborhoods at once, on workplaces, association buildings, and political and supposedly apolitical circles.” In June 1923, when the Fascists did pull off simultaneous invasions of two hundred forty apartments in Livorno’s city center, now–Prime Minister Mussolini celebrated their achievement in the Senate.

Apart from the Fascists’ own overbearing arrogance — and violence — what immediately shines through from official reports is the tumultuous nature of this city and the vibrancy of its “enduring popular roots.” Livorno’s distinctly plural, rebellious character had a long history: already from the late sixteenth century it had granted exemptions, immunity, and privileges to draw in traders, sailors, and artisans of all creeds and backgrounds. It was open to refugees: to Jews, Muslims, Greeks, Catholics, and French Huguenots — and even to slaves and outlaws, with specific pledges that there would be no inquiring into their past.

Livorno’s social fabric made it into an emblematic site of revolt and subversive energy. Its past is anything but monolithic: the city has undergone many transformations throughout its history, with its communities marked by deep divisions. But it has, at least, always been a city rich in contradictions and sharp polarizations — a city of libertarian spirit, alive with social conflict. The Fascists were well aware of this. And there was also great ferment in Livorno on January 21, 1921, when the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) held its national congress.

The Livorno Congress

Governed by a Socialist local administration, Livorno was chosen for the PSI’s national congress on security grounds, especially given the relatively nonsectarian stance of the local police prefect. Indeed, a plan to hold the congress in Florence had to be abandoned, following the spread of appalling Blackshirt violence which enjoyed blatant police connivance. With the congress also expected to bring a split between Socialists and Communists, tensions were running high.

So, when Livorno’s moderate-reformist leader Giuseppe Emanuele Modigliani, a member since 1894, opened proceedings at the Teatro Goldoni by saluting both reformist and revolutionary leaders — both “Turati and Bombacci” — there was immediate uproar. Forced to speak through repeated interruptions, he concluded his greeting message by alluding to the split. As he put it, “some consider this a theater for surgery, and a painful amputation! We don’t know if this amputation will happen: but if it does, what needs amputating is the rotten, the useless, the contemptible.”

The “amputation” did, indeed, come. Three motions were presented to the congress, with the centrists opposed to a split taking 98,028 votes, the reformists 14,695, and the communists 58,783 — not a negligible figure, but still a minority. Many of those who had voted for this latter motion abandoned the Teatro Goldoni and reconvened at the Teatro San Marco. There began another long story of political struggles and passions, with the founding of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Exiled

The Socialist Party was strongly rooted in Livorno; locally, the Communist faction drew smaller numbers than other centers like Turin and Florence, where the PSI also had a strong presence by 1921. Many had been attracted by the political radicalization of 1919–20, with both the material and ideological polarization that followed World War I and the so-called biennio rosso of strikes, and factory and land occupations.

Key, here, were the hopes raised by the October Revolution. The events in Russia provided a concrete (if rapidly mythologized) reference point. Livorno’s Socialists responded to this climate with a change of tone — and a sharpening of their own combativity. On August 7, 1919, the local Socialist paper La Parola dei socialisti published an article titled “St. Russia”:

In their history, peoples inevitably have moments that decide their — often sudden — passage from a state of static, blind acquiescence to a new stage of active life … today we can say that the revolution itself, the richest page in this historic period of disguised enslavement and official hypocrisy, must and cannot die alone … we look to [that revolution], with faith in the emancipation of all peoples, so that Europe and the world are no longer immersed in this orgy of blood, and so that humanity does not permanently live this aberration.

This more-or-less strategically minded choice helps explain why the Socialists’ support continued to grow. Their local-level rootedness was also accompanied by an older presence in cooperatives, mutual-aid associations, and local-level electoral work. Indeed, just months before the decisive Livorno Congress, the Socialists had confirmed their local strength by taking 7,915 out of 16,825 votes in the municipal elections of November 7, 1920.

Faced with this reality, a minority of militants joined the split at first: if the Livorno PSI had 1,107 members in October 1920, only 255 left to form the PCI. Aside from their weak numbers, it was unsurprising who they were: most came from the same locals which had already backed the PSI’s internal Communist faction as early as 1917. They officially formed the Livorno branch of the PCI on January 29, 1921. The new party owed much to its militants’ determined endeavors — for months they had no local office, before finally occupying some rooms in a dilapidated hospital.

But the focus of their activity lay elsewhere — in the social life of their neighborhoods, in the organized mutual-aid efforts that began to take form in the streets and squares of the proletarian Garibaldi district, in their propagation of “the ideal” (including through the organized distribution of l’Ordine Nuovo newspaper) and, indeed, through their tenacious vigilance against the Fascists, whose every fresh bid to enter met with sharp opposition.

Subversive Traditions

The PCI is often considered to have begun life with rigid and self-isolating ideological rigor. Yet from the outset this was accompanied, in Livorno, by the typically libertarian notes that had developed through militants’ close ties with local anarchists, who were strongly rooted in the city. Already in recent years they had provided the intransigent Socialists with languages, subversive practices, shared spaces, and a tradition of internationalist solidarity, which especially developed in the period between the start of World War I and the biennio rosso.

The many continuing affinities between Communists and anarchists were, indeed, never entirely erased. The party’s most prominent leader Amadeo Bordiga was avowedly dogmatic, attributing the party organization an absolutely central role as the precondition for all class action. But when he spoke in Livorno, he had some hesitations. Two days after the local PCI branch was founded, he gave a talk at the Teatro San Marco at which he denounced all other political forces — but kept a diplomatic silence when it came to the anarchists.

Livorno’s practice and experience were atypical. But they stand apart from the commonplace image of Communists signing up to rigid party directives and total separation from all other political forces. In fact, while the Livorno Communists did maintain their own political stance, they were distinguished by an attitude distant from sectarian dogmatism. They instead built a strong collaboration with other forces in local institutions, trade unions, and social forces pushing up from below.

For instance, after the split in January 1921, the Communists’ four local councillors decided to renew their involvement in city hall, where they backed the Socialist administration. This was an autonomous decision, albeit with the consent of the central party leadership. In fact, the Livorno PCI secretary, Ilio Barontini, himself a councillor, had already told the Socialists in advance of his intention to continue collaboration, even before receiving a response from central party leaders.

“Dario” Ilio Barontini

Barontini was an especially important figure — for local communism but also more generally. An anti-fascist militant, he had an intense feeling for humanity and an uncommon political temperament. This provided him with the courage to venture wherever the party wanted him to be — and he always put his own skin in the front line of the class struggle. Throughout his letters to his family, one phrase often crops up: “I belong to the proletariat’s cause.”

A Central Committee member and first secretary of both the Livorno branch and the Pisa-Livorno federation, Barontini maintained intense activity in the PCI’s clandestine organization after the legal party was crushed by the Fascist regime. At first exiled to France, he was one of the first International Brigade volunteers during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, before heading to Ethiopia to fight against the colonial-Italian Fascist forces.

Ilio Barontini.

He then returned to France, and then Italy, as a partisan in the Resistance of World War II. Under the nom de guerre Dario, he became commander of the Garibaldi assault brigades and a member of the PCI’s insurrectionary triumvirate in Emilia-Romagna. With the fall of the regime and the return of democratic institutions, Barontini was again a PCI Central Committee member, secretary of the Livorno branch, a member of the Constituent Assembly and then the Senate.

A central figure in both the PCI legal and illegal work, Barontini was thus an emblematic figure of the openness of Livornese communism, which gradually drew it into the Gramscian current. Born to a family of anarchist background and then a PSI and PCI man, his political initiatives were constantly oriented toward cooperation with other forces on the left. Rejecting absolutist, sectarian attitudes, his political practice had a core principle in the common anti-fascist struggle and a militancy aimed at building an inclusive society.

Libertarian

Indeed, support for the Socialist local administration was not the only time that the Livorno PCI showed their dissent from the national party line. This was also true in the case of the Arditi del Popolo (AdP). This spontaneous popular movement emerged in towns across Italy faced with the constant attacks by Fascists, which targeted trade unionists, local labor halls, and anti-fascist groups already long before Mussolini’s March on Rome in October 1922.

The PCI’s response to the AdP was largely hostile — a stance criticized by the Communist International. Bordiga insisted that military discipline must remain on an exclusively party basis. But the PCI’s political practice did not always fully respond to theory, especially at the local level.

In Livorno, an AdP organization was formed with two hundred Communist volunteers, a hundred Socialists, ninety anarchists, and a hundred ten republicans: these formed four distinct squads, but they acted in close collaboration, and were joined by a fifth, mixed squad, whose task was to move around the city stopping the Fascists passing through any of the main streets.

These squads’ neighborhood presence allowed a diffuse defensive and offensive action against the Fascists, in the closest of mutual collaboration. They could rapidly melt into the crowd in the working-class districts, and often managed to see off the Fascists and police with the aid of utensils, pots and pans and objects of all kinds chucked from the windows of surrounding buildings.

This was also accompanied by a trade union–based “proletarian defense committee” coordinating the opposition to Fascism; already in March 1921 it had representatives of the Camera del Lavoro (labor hall), the trade unions, Socialists, anarchists, and Communists from various leagues, associations, and youth formations.

Openings and Tensions

The Livorno PCI was frequently divided between the demands of collaboration and its problematic deviations from the central party line. Often this implied a certain ambiguity: letters to other Socialist-controlled organizations often offered an opening to cooperation — but also emphasized its conditional nature and exclusive aim of facilitating mass action.

Yet these tensions continually melted away faced with the pressing need for a frontline struggle against the Fascists. Communists and Socialists even ran joint candidates in elections for the local Camera del Lavoro and maintained collaborative trade union work in the factories — even though this was combined with an intense propaganda effort from the PCI.

Only in subsequent years — after the party was forced into illegality — did the conditions of struggle and the difficult organizational context create a heightened moral tension between the parties. This led to even the Livorno Communists tightening their ranks, and thus weakening their collaboration with other political forces. But if in this sense, the early stages of clandestinity heightened the resonance of a self-isolating party line, this delicate moment was more the exception than the rule.

Indeed, what we learn from the situation in Livorno, with its experience of a shared anti-fascist commitment, is that an understanding of early Italian communism cannot be reduced to generalizations or to the most ideological dimensions of politics. The past becomes collective memory through a process of selection and reinterpretation, which also follows the cultural sensibilities and political trends of the present — and it is worth asking ourselves what these are. The journey from over-simplification to political demonization is a short one, as Communists are only too aware.

This is worth bearing in mind, faced with the rhetorical instrumentalization of this period, which is still now at the forefront of the anti-communist propaganda issued by liberal and conservative forces. And so, too, faced with the transformations and divisions that shaped the history of the Italian left.

Starting with Palmiro Togliatti’s remolding of the PCI at the end of World War II, the emphasis given to the Gramscian approach was rhetorically sustained by Party publications built around harsh condemnation of the party in its first years, which was presented as rigidly dogmatic and inactive in fighting fascism. While these claims do have some foundation in the most ideological expressions of early Italian communism, they also reflect an over-generalization, too abstract from contemporary political experiences and the more composite and complex local realities.

Rebellious Memory

For this reason, the libertarian, plural, rebellious nature of Livorno’s communism is not just a beautiful history, but also an uncomfortable one. It is difficult (if not impossible) to find such a memory a proper place within the current democratic institutions.

And confronting this history is especially complicated faced with the historical transformations taking place today, with the dissolution of the Left and its weakening ties to its original, future-oriented ideals of equality and inclusion. The Italian left is today submerged in a general indistinction among political forces, and indeed the capitulation of politics in general to the higher imperatives of neoliberalism.

Livornese communism had many contradictory elements, but also provides an exemplary image of conflict itself. Its history reminds us that ferment and conflict always create something new. The refusal of conflict demobilizes us and denies us any alternative perspective on the future.

Even if Fascism largely destroyed PCI organization on Italian soil by 1926, many militants remained active, whether continuing to build spaces of collaboration and joint resistance on the left, or in fighting the many expressions of Fascist oppression. Barontini’s remarkable struggle was a case in point: it took him from Livorno to Spain, France, and East Africa, driven by a faith in the future, nurtured by the fight against Fascism in the present.

Barontini reminded us of this in his own words, as he wrote to his family after long years away as an exile, party leader and combatant. “I’ve been unable to give up on my ideals, which had precedence even over you, dare I say it. I love you.” His priority had always been the revolutionary struggle, to satisfy, as he put it, his “only goal in life, which has always been the quest to find the right and the good.”

Defining what is good may seem rather complex. But the problem today is perhaps, rather a different one: the fear of conflict — and the refusal to take a side.