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Lucio Magri, The Tailor of Ulm: Communism in the Twentieth Century.

Lucio Magri, The Tailor of Ulm: Communism in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso 2011)

SWIMMING AGAINST the stream, Lucio Magri joined the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) in 1956 and rose quite rapidly through the ranks until the expulsion of his Il Manifesto group in 1970 sent him into the revolutionary left for more than a decade (an evidently painful interlude about which he says little more than that he allowed himself to be deluded by extremism). Returning in the 1980s, he resisted Achille Occhetto's successful liquidationist project that saw the PCI re-launched in 1991 as the Democratic Party of the left, its historic connection to the Communist tradition of Gramsci, Togliatti, and Berlinguer severed. Magri helped form Communist Refoundation (RC), but abandoned it in 2004 to become a "living private archive, in storage." (17) The Tailor of Ulm, published in 2009 and now republished in English, is the fruit of Magri's research and experience.

The book's title was unwittingly bequeathed to Magri by the doyen of the PCI left, Pietro Ingrao, who in the debate on the party's future recalled Brecht's poem, or parable, about a 16th-century tailor who plummeted to his death from a church tower after being challenged to prove his claim to have invented a flying machine:
 The bells ring out in praise
 That man is not a bird
 It was a wicked, foolish lie,
 Mankind will never fly,
 Said the Bishop to the People.

Brecht appears to give the Bishop of Ulm a last triumphal word, but for Ingrao the moral was that the tailor was not wrong, just ahead of his time. Magri, asking Ingrao if "the tailor's bold attempt" had made any contribution to the history of aeronautics, rejected keeping the party going simply as "an inspiring ideal." Communism had always claimed to be "part of a historical process already under way, of a real movement that was changing the existing state of things; it had therefore implied constant factual verification, scientific analysis of the present and realistic prognosis of the future, in order to avoid dissolving into myth." (2) The Tailor of Ulm is a long rumination on whether it had been that sort of party and whether it should remain, in one form or another, part of that critical process. Ending the book with a reprint of an article he wrote in 1987, which suggested that a much reformed mass party engaged in a constantly recreated dialectical relationship with the new social movements could help them achieve an "autonomous subjectivity" through resistance to globalized capitalism, Magri optimistically answers yes. Any residual optimism, however, seems to have disappeared in November 2011, when Magri travelled to Switzerland and implemented the "assisted death" he had apparently been planning since the death of his wife in 2009. He had just seen Giorgio Napolitano--an erstwhile PCI comrade now ascended to president of the republic--invite one globalized capitalist (US-trained economist Mario Monti) to replace another (Silvio Berlusconi) with an administration of unelected Eurocrats.

The core of the book is an account of the PCI's failure to achieve the "Italian Road to Socialism" adumbrated by Togliatti in 1944 and finalized by him in his 8th party congress speech in December 1956, an overtly reformist path of "progressive democracy" that would be a "third way" between social-democratic parliamentarism and Leninist insurrection (the dream of the "Big Day"). The PCI would build a broad constellation of democratic forces, lead and mould them in industrial and democratic struggles, and over an indeterminate period systematically wrest more and more positions of economic and political power from the ruling class to the point where a "peaceful conquest and democratic management of state power"--socialism--would become possible. (134) He tells a familiar story of how, from start to finish, the PCI deluded itself about the reformist instincts of Christian Democracy (DC), refrained from using its authority among the working class to pressure DC into admitting Communists into government or conceding the structural reforms needed to shift the balance of class forces towards socialism, and gradually wore out the patience of many members and followers with successive re-brandings of the Italian Road: "historic compromise," "democratic alternative," and "new course" (this last being Occhetto's road to nowhere). Attributing the PCI's strategic failure to the excessive tactical caution of Togliatti and Berlinguer in the face of a difficult international situation and the ever-present possibility of a domestic Fascist resurgence--the two combined in Berlinguer's fear that he might become Salvador Allende Mark II--Magri implies that the original Gramsci-Togliatti "historic compromise" was never given and still deserved a serious try.

Magri describes himself in his first party decade as "not too disciplined but harmless enough" (222) and with false modesty as "a mere nobody." (171) As Perry Anderson makes clear in a New Left Review (NLR) obituary, Magri was never that: "as dazzling as any film star of the period--athletic build; strong jaw; regular features; blonde hair tapering to a widow's peak; deep-set, blazing blue eyes; wide smile; large, perfect teeth--and in dress of immaculate informality, he was the picture of spectacular good looks and casual elegance. Skilled at chess and poker, and a first-class cook, he had every outward asset of the man of the world, admired by the opposite sex." (NLR, 72, Nov-Dec 2011, 112) A bourgeois intellectual with no family connection to the left, he joined the PCI with none of the guilt or anxiety that recent events in Moscow, Poznan, and Budapest had prompted among huge numbers of party veterans, or with any substantive disagreements with the authoritarian, hierarchical, Stalinist party that Palmiro Togliatti had built since the "Salerno Turn." By the early 1960s he was entrenched in the Rome apparatus, hobnobbing with the great and the good and occasionally provoking the likes of Giorgio Amendola with minor leftist heresies. When Amendola subjected him to "Bolshevik discipline" that consisted of a lengthy period of thumb twiddling, Magri had the cultural and material resources to give his boss an elegant vaffanculo and walk away for a period of personal reflection and study. (173, 184)

This only occasionally revelatory and almost exclusively top-down history of the PCI from 1944 to 1991 would have benefited from much more biographical detail. Specialists in Italian history, neo-Marxism, and comparative communism will surely welcome this book. Readers looking for a sophisticated entry-level volume on the PCI would be better off with Paul Ginsborg's brilliant A History of Contemporary Italy 1943-1980 (Penguin 1990), which presents a more coherent version of the same story (and much more besides) with all the scholarly apparatus The Tailor of Ulm lacks and at significantly less cost. Readers looking primarily for a synoptic history of communism in the 20th century need to look elsewhere.


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Author:Manley, John
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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