Legacies of Italian Marxism

“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.” What was left of this seemingly ominous prospect a century after the publication of Karl Marx and ...

“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.” What was left of this seemingly ominous prospect a century after the publication of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s 1848 Communist Manifesto? The answer varies according to geography and national affiliation. In the aftermath of World War II, communism was no longer (if it ever had been) a straightforward global aspiration. Of course, it could be argued that most countries were spared from choosing or soul-searching; either they fell east of the Iron Curtain, or west of it—or even further west, across the Lethe-like Atlantic. Some nations, the defeated nations, got stuck in the middle: either physically split and left longing to reconnect with their other halves, like Germany; or, like Italy, emerging territorially intact and yet oppressed by a spiritual conundrum that often verged on dissociative identity disorder.

Italy, host to one of the most impressive economic booms of the postwar period, was also home to the largest communist party outside Russia and China, which is to say, the largest communist party in real terms. With their hearts on the left but their wallets on the right, as the expression goes, Italian intellectuals, undistracted by the emotions that accompany clear-cut victory or defeat, rushed to provide an impartial reckoning with the viability and legacy of communism. To some extent it was this very task that forged their existence as a group. And reckon they did, famously, via Antonio Gramsci. Imprisoned and severed from active life and society in 1926, Gramsci turned to Marxism for spiritual self-probing in his Prison Notebooks, a text published posthumously in installments between 1948 and 1951, just in time to offer much-needed therapeutic guidance in the post-1956 de-Stalinization years.

In The Communist, which was written in 1964 and 1965, set in 1958, and also published posthumously, in 1976, Guido Morselli, an author profoundly influenced by the work of Marcel Proust, turns the so-called Italian road to socialism into a novelized story of the young country’s search for an ever-vanishing age of political innocence.

The Communist gives us a nonlinear narrative centered on the spiritual crisis of Walter Ferranini, a man born “socialist even before he became a man,” raised in the cult of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and plagued by the original sin of not having participated in the anti-Fascist resistance in Italy. To his credit, he lends a helping hand in the anti-Franco movement in Spain before immigrating to the United States, “a reified, dispossessed world that completely transformed” him.

What can contemporary readers learn from the profoundly melancholic story of a failed attempt to suppress one’s leftist leanings?

Forever ruing the “betrayal” of moving to America—and after a failed marriage to Nancy, a wealthy supporter of a fringe right-wing party, her romantic choices notwithstanding—Ferranini eventually works his way back to Italy and into a parliament disavowed by the same communist party that a loyal base has elected him to represent. A natural-born communist, Ferranini is called on to epitomize the untainted moral virtues of a socialist hero but reawakens as a forlorn renegade in the middle of his life journey, plunged into a peripatetic and postlapsarian pilgrimage that shows “no trace of any dialectical progress,” “nothing but repetition.”

Uncompromising, and therefore a rogue among a new generation of gentrified and condescending communists, the martyr of this novel is left contemplating suicide while confined to the ivory tower that is postwar Italian parliamentary democracy. (Morselli himself took the suicide option in 1973, when he was still unpublished.)

Not unlike Gramsci, who reacted to incarceration with a “disinterested” intellectual project of “molecular” self-understanding—a self-probing so capillary as to bring awareness to every nuanced shift in one’s intellectual development—a dejected Ferranini turns to books and primary sources (including Gramsci, no doubt) to explain and renew his conviction in feelings and values once naturally perceived and upheld. The result is brainy and dispassionate:

It has been argued that Marx’s life story is in large part the story of his liberation from Hegel.

Broadly speaking then, it is a relationship of opposition. It must be acknowledged however, that there is also significant accord between the two, an outlook we see in the early Marx that leads him to understand the world following yes, Hegel, but also (via Hegel) all post-Renaissance European thought. An orientation we can describe as humanistic, anthropocentric, optimistic.

Reading might bring some erudition to “a Marxist picture of reality that remained an extrinsic concept for many,” but this picture is second nature to Ferranini: for most of his life, he “didn’t have to translate events into historical materialism,” because “they simply presented themselves to him in that light.”

But translate and adapt Ferranini eventually must. Marx himself, no naive ideologue, Ferranini informs us, had stated something of this sort: that “men make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own making.” Indeed, Ferranini adds, “the circumstances matter more than the men and history.” Ferranini follows Marx in finding an anti-utopian corrective in Darwin. The teleology that some attribute to Marxism is deceptive: since the dawn of modernity and forever after, the communist journey is a meandering labyrinth with no landing place, a limbo in which workers will continue to toil with minimal improvements to their life quality.

With utopian “optimism” and future aspirations out of the way, the mind turns to the past, to the dawn of a modernity catalyzed by the Renaissance and its “humanism,” largely Italian creations. Ferranini’s Marx granted this and so did Gramsci, whose wish was to retell Italy’s long intellectual history in order to identify the exceptionalism of Italian socialism and the source of its ailments. Born under the sign of a “renaissance,” or redemptive rebirth, rather than an organic and forward-looking “reform,” Italy heralded modernity by staking a future on the impossible recovery of a nobler past.


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This outlook, though guarded and retrograde, had some benefit at the dawn of a new modernity in 1789, when, unable to replicate France’s revolutionary caesura in the historical continuum, Italy turned to codifying a “passive revolution” of the mind. Enlightenment ideals were surely great, but they were violently and therefore tenuously enforced in France, where a restoration was to be expected. Gramsci follows Vincenzo Cuoco, a witness to Naples’s own failed revolution of 1799, in enforcing the idea that any lasting change will come about only as a result of a sustained and by no means obvious educational process. If (intellectual) leaders “know” but don’t always “feel,” and commoners “feel” often without “knowing,” an enduring epochal change will occur once the two blocs reconnect on the middle ground of passionate understanding. This feat, Gramsci alerts us, will depend on Italy’s ability to produce edifying literature, specifically novels of national-popular aspiration. And here, in intellectual history, the posthumous legacies of Gramsci and Morselli interconnect in an ironic way.

When Morselli submitted the manuscript of The Communist to Turin’s eminent publishing house, Einaudi, none other than Italo Calvino, arguably the most internationally well-known among 20th-century Italian authors and himself a disgruntled deserter of the Italian Communist Party, was tasked with outlining the reasons for rejection:

I believe … that creative literature can be applied to anything, including politics, but one needs to find more adaptable forms of expression, truer ones, ones that are less organically false than what the novel is today. Handling problems that are close to our hearts, one can write essays that are literary works of great value, of great poetic value I mean, with not only ideas and information, but people, environments, and feelings. This is how one must train oneself to address serious things, and in no other way.1

Calvino is here reinforcing an editorial line that tethered the future of Italian literature to the essayistic rather than the novelistic form, a line underscored by Einaudi’s piecemeal publication in the immediate postwar period of Gramsci’s notebooks, a text that in fact explicitly disavowed such an approach by staking popular emancipation on a thriving fictional production engaging national lore and mores.

We cannot fail to notice, then, that the English translation of The Communist, which in fact precedes the full English translation of Gramsci’s notebooks (to this day known largely in abridged and anthologized form), vindicates Gramsci as Morselli himself was avenged when the publishing house Adelphi, reacting against Einaudi, mustered the weight not just of The Communist but of Morselli’s entire unpublished corpus, giving the novel a second chance in Italian intellectual life.2

That said, The Communist is by no means a novel for the masses; rather, it is arguably Morselli’s most culturally specific book, and one wonders if NYRB Classics would have been better off introducing Morselli to a foreign readership with more readily digestible, albeit still highly idiosyncratic, works like 1974’s Roma senza papa (Rome without the Pope), the dystopian fiction of a defecting pope, or 1977’s Dissipatio H. G. (The Dissolution of the Human Race), the post-apocalyptic story of a world deserted by humankind.


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Yet the present challenge is fascinating and even welcome if we have recourse once again to Gramsci, who reproached Italian men of letters for being “jargony” and so self-referential in their emotions and concerns as to be “untranslatable,” culturally more so than linguistically. Now that The Communist has been made available in a smoothly idiomatic English prose alongside a glossary and notes introducing the many historical men who make cameo appearances in the novel, it remains to be seen whether Ferranini’s life story will find a sympathetic readership in America, a land whose ideology he abhorred but whose people he admired.

Finally, what can contemporary readers learn from the profoundly melancholic story of a failed attempt to suppress one’s leftist leanings? Thirty or so years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and as recurring financial, climatic, and geopolitical crises try our faith in Western capitalism and its institutions, we may find ourselves in a spiritual crisis of our own, one that needs its appropriate discourse and literary form. If the pattern of Italian Marxism holds, chances are that some Italian thinker, as yet unknown, has already made sense of our current predicament and has told this new story, as will be revealed to us upon its posthumous reception.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Calvino’s letter to Morselli is included in Anna Baldini, Il comunista: Una storia letteraria dalla Resistenza agli anni Settanta (Utet, 2008), p. 137. Translation from the Italian my own.
  2. Baldini, Il comunista, pp. 149–50.
Featured image: Just around the corner of the Arsenale, Che still rules (2011). Photograph by Willem Velthoven / Flickr