Italian communists in Stalin’s gulags

by

Introduction

Bob Gould

The following document is from Prometeo, translated by the British Communist Workers Organisation’s Revolutionary Perspectives. It is of considerable historical interest.

Dante Corneli, the Italian communist survivor of the gulag who spent the next 20 years of his life building a literary monument to the hundreds of Italian Communists of his generation murdered in Stalin’s prisons, was brought to my attention at an international history conference in Sydney a few years ago, when his project was described by a visiting Italian historian.

I spent some of the last holiday period reading two books, about British and Irish communists murdered or imprisoned by Stalin and I consider it important taht socialists in the 21st century should be familiar with the monstrous perversion of the socialist project that Stalinism became in the mid-20th century.


Italian Communists in Stalin’s gulags

Damiano Signorini

1936, 1937, 1938 … it was during the course of these three years that the Stalinist regime wiped out the entire Bolshevik old guard as well as every form of class opposition by means of its notorious show trials. In fact, the obscure work of the “troika”, or rather the three-­member commissions charged with prosecuting, judging and condemning the accused, had begun well before and would continue long after. This historical course had already opened a decade earlier with the ejection of Trotsky from the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and his subsequent banishment. They were the years Victor Serge memorably defined as “the midnight in the century”.

Italian communist emigrants to Russia were caught up in all these trials. Their history has often been conveniently under­reported or misreported, in line with the opposing, although convergent, interests of Italian Stalinism and the anti-communist bloc. It’s worth remembering that it is only since the 1990s that the Russian archives have been accessible. Since then, a whole series of publications have seen the light of day, most of them in the so-called academic world. Obviously, we are aware that historical “truth” — whether or not the historian is writing in good or bad faith — is always partial, but at the same time we believe we should pay tribute to those comrades who, during “outbreaks of collective madness” would often pay with their lives for their communist militancy. Those of us who are today struggling for the same cause must try to understand, with hindsight and therefore more clearly, the historical process that the comrades who became victims of persecution experienced directly, and that probably made them unable to grasp the essence of the matter.

First of all the numbers: even if the sources give different and contradictory figures. (Some estimates are only for those who emigrated to the USSR illegally and under false names.) It is estimated that there were about 4000 Italians resident in the USSR in the 1930s, including the 3000-strong community of Italian origin in the Crimea, dating back to the 18th century (which was not strictly politicised but was strongly affected by the repression). Of these, around 100 suffered some form of repression in the Stalinist period according to the PCI after de-Stalinisation. However, it would be better to reckon 1000, as estimated by recent historical research. From 1922 to 1928 there were 600 Italian political expatriates, at least according to the data of the Fascist authorities. Almost all of them went via France or Switzerland, where they could wait for the chance to go to the USSR. As a rule they were comrades who had had a run in-often armed-with the military police, the fascist squads, and with the Special Tribunals. They had all been militants since 1921, with revolutionary fortitude and honour, as they used to say in the language of the time. About 250 were shot in the notorious Lubianka and Butovo prisons or else were to die from starvation and malnutrition in the various gulags where they served their sentences.

Very few of the survivors have ever explained what happened to them.

According to the Encyclopaedia of the Resistance and Anti-Fascism, edited by La Pietra, from 1926 to 1943 the Special Tribunals condemned 42 people to death (31 of the sentences were carried out), only four of which applied to Italians, the rest being directed against Yugoslav partisans. In general you came out alive from Fascist prisons. An exception to this was Gramsci. On the other hand, many of the 1100 imprisoned German communists were liquidated in the gulags, while in 1939 500 of them were “donated” to the German SS as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

On arrival every immigrant had to fill in a questionnaire — the anetka — specifying their background, ideas and political affiliation. This was then kept in the archives of the Communist International and regularly updated according to the reports of the numerous spies, informers, etc.

Thus the Italians were very soon asked if they knew Bordiga, if they had had any association with him, if so, what kind of relationship, and what they thought of his removal from the party leadership. Bear in mind that the celebrated exchange between Bordiga and Stalin at the Enlarged Executive of the International took place on February 15, 1926.[1] From then on every Italian was suspected of Bordigism. During the interrogation the accused was asked to account for things said or done even 10 or 15 years earlier. The objective was to make him give in, capitulate, force an act of submission towards the Party — which was presented as an organism that could never be wrong — and hopefully to induce him to join the ranks of the spies, infiltrators or provocateurs (well paid though) and get others drawn into the trials. (Naming other “counter-revolutionaries” was one of the things most appreciated by the investigators and would put an end to the ordeal.)

KRTB: this was the acronym on the sentence ticket of a good many of them. It meant Counter-revolutionary Trotskyist/Bordigist and carried with it the most severe punishments, the hardest work and the smallest food rations. (In the gulags the political detainees were placed under the authority of common criminals, who were delegated by the camp administrations to run the daily life of the camps.) An obvious corollary is that many more communists were to die in Stalin’s prison camps than in the Fascist prisons. If there were only this to go on, for a revolutionary today to still speak of anti-Fascism is tantamount to disarming oneself in front of the working class.

The historical context in which these events occurred should also be taken into account. The first Five Year Plan (1928-33) with its collectivisations had revealed itself to be a disaster. Millions of peasants were flooding into the cities where there were already enormous problems with food supplies. They lived miserably on the streets, surviving by begging and various other expedients. So many were they that in order to try and stem the flow “internal passports” were introduced for travelling from one locality to another in the country. Meanwhile in the factories work rates were constantly being increased while wages remained inadequate — then the udarniki appeared, that is to say the “assault workers”, who finished up being well-paid on the basis of the production quotas they had reached — but in general life was very hard. Just imagine: two months’ wages were not enough to buy a hat, an indispensable item to survive the very long and very hard Russian winters. Housing was another problem. For the party functionaries there were the hotels — suitably kept under surveillance — but for the workers the maximum they were entitled to was cohabitation with other families. If that had been tolerable in the name of war communism, after 15 or 20 years of the revolution it was less so, especially as freedom was becoming more restricted for some while others were finding career opportunities opening up for themselves in the party or the state industries.

The celebrated writer, Victor Serge, was one of the first to be arrested in 1928, together with many other members of the Opposition. He then spent three years in Siberia before being expelled from the USSR in the spring of 1936. In 1927 the Old Bolshevik, Adolf Joffe, then commissar for foreign affairs, committed suicide in protest against Stalinist methods and policies.

Workers’ discontent, along with the agricultural and food supply crisis, provoked tensions inside the Bolshevik Party and it seems a plan was being hatched to remove Stalin from the post of party secretary. Then, in Petrograd Kirov — president of the city soviet — was assassinated on December 1, 1934. This was the signal to Stalin — in effect gave him the mandate — to launch an all-out anti-Trotskyist campaign, which would sweep through the party ranks, both inside and out. In a few days about 40,000 people were arrested in Petrograd alone. All those who had been expelled in 1927-28 for being Oppositionists and who had then been readmitted a few months later with a simple word of warning were now rearrested. (Stalin had ably adopted for himself the Opposition slogans on collectivisation-industrialisation, thus hoodwinking many activists, including Zinoviev). This was the beginning of the liquidation of any kind of rank and file opposition, as until then Stalinist repression had mainly fallen on the ruling elites.

One of the first Italians to run up against Soviet justice was Virgilio Verdaro (1885-1960). Imprisoned for defeatism in World War I, he was close to the positions of Bordiga’s Il Soviet and by 1918 he was already co-ordinator in Tuscany for what would become the Absentionist Communist fraction (1920), which thanks to him had a sizeable following. Thus, on January 15, 1921, he was among the founding members of the PCd’I at the San Marco theatre in Livorno and became a member of the first central committee.

In 1924 the party transferred him to the USSR, where he stayed in the notorious Hotel Lux. He was dismissed for being a militant of the Left and since he was critical of the policies of the party and the International — this was the period of Bolshevisation, which was forced on the PCd’I by Zinoviev, of the Como conference (1924), of the Congress of Lyon (1926), the Committee of Intesa[2] — from 1927 he was put under surveillance by the GPU. (The Leninist ex-Cheka, or rather the committee against sabotage and counter­revolution, later the NKVD, later still the KGB.) Sensing his own imminent arrest, in 1931 he quickly fled the USSR with the aid of money collected by the Italian comrades. It was impossible for his wife and companion, Emilia Mariottini, to follow him because she was pregnant. She was sacked from her job and thrown out of her lodgings when she refused to become a police spy and accuse her husband. Later she lost her son and lived in extreme poverty until 1945 when she also managed to leave the country.

Meanwhile Verdaro settled in Belgium where he was reunited with comrades of the Fraction, often writing for its organ, Prometeo, under the pseudonym of Gatto Mammone. From these columns he would often denounce the policies of Stalinism. On the outbreak of war he moved to his native Switzerland, where he lost contact with the other comrades, so much so that he joined the Ticinese Socialist Party. He returned to Italy and died in Florence without ever coming back to revolutionary communist positions, in all likelihood proving once again, as they say, “it is difficult to grow old with Marxism”.

Luigi Calligaris (1894-1937): proudly and openly affiliated to the Left until his expulsion, sought refuge in the USSR in 1933 after five years of Fascist imprisonment. Initially, he presided over the Moscow Circle of Emigres, where as a rule the political debates inside the emigrant community took place. As such, these were kept under close surveillance by the GPU which had many spies and infiltrators in the group.

After giving up courses at the Leninist University he was removed from this position for his open and obstinate “Bordigism”. However, he still participated in the meetings where he formed a group “of the Left” together with Alfredo Bonciani, Ezio Biondini, Rodolfo Bernetich, Giovanni Bellusich, Arnaldo Silva, Giuseppe Sensi and the anarchists Otello Gaggi and Gino Martelli.

Along with the first four, in December 1934 he managed to get a letter to Brussels and Prometeo — organ of our fraction — with which they were in contact despite the political censorship. It spoke out against the political situation inside Russia, including the Communist Party.

Because of the spies in Brussels, he was arrested not long after the appearance of the article in Prometeo, interrogated and tortured to extract the desired confession, condemned to three years in the gulag, later increased while he was serving it. Apparently he died of malnutrition in 1937.

Merini, freed after 10 years in the gulag but destroyed in spirit and still under surveillance, would ask a PCI delegation that was in Moscow at the time for a Congress (in the person of G. Pajetta) to get him repatriated. The next day he was rearrested by the NKVD and condemned to another 10 years in the gulag, ending up being killed by a common criminal in circumstances that were never clarified.

Bellusich and Bernetich were probably already shot by 1937. Gaggi and Martelli (who had been condemned in Italy to 20 and 30 years in prison respectively) perished in the gulag.

Bonciani was stabbed to death in the room where he lived by two Italian criminals (accommodated for the occasion at the House of the Revolution — a place of convalescence for Old Bolsheviks — at the expense of the PCd’I!) Arrested by the Soviet “justices”, they were condemned to a good … three months, and it’s not even certain that they served the whole of this. The Stalinist prosecutors also maintained that he had been liquidated for his espionage activity, which had already been noted while he was in Italy.

Silva had been imprisoned during the famous trial of Italian communists in 1923 and was renowned in the Italian milieu for managing to escape from the Regina Coeli prison by passing himself off as a lawyer who was visiting the detainees and afterwards poking fun at the prison governor in an open letter in the party press. In Russia from 1923, he became a colonel in the Red Army. He was shot in 1937 or 1938.

This group also enjoyed the sympathy and indirect support of Francesco Misiano, someone who was well-known in his role as president of the International Workers Aid and who would die from illness in the middle of 1936 a few weeks before — it now seems certain — he was to be arrested by the GPU; and Guido Picelli, commanding officer of the Arditi in the celebrated battle of Oltretorrente in Parma[3], killed in a Spanish trench by a blow … to the neck (like many others, he had asked to go to Spain as a volunteer to escape from likely arrest in the USSR from where it was impossible to emigrate. Once in Spain he made contact with the POUM.)

Thus, from the spring of 1935 a series of articles denouncing the disappearance of these comrades appeared in Prometeo under the signature of Gatto Mammone. (“The Calligaris Case”, “Where Is Calligaris”, “Calligaris, Ourselves and Centrism”, “We Denounce the Disappearance of Calligaris”). This was the first denunciation of the crimes of Stalinism in history.

The comrades of the Fraction then decided to write an open letter to the central committee of the Bolshevik Party; a letter that received no reply. Again, in the first half of 1938, our comrades of the Fraction published a list of about 20 missing comrades in Prometeo and denounced their detention, or worse, their physical liquidation.

A young worker from Turin, Emilio Guamaschelli, who emigrated to the USSR in 1932, was caught up in this affair. There is no evidence that he had any links with the Left but even he became involved in the trial of the “Calligaris group” and was sentenced to three years in Siberia, later doubled in preference to being expelled from the country, and labelled an “an enemy of the Soviet people and of socialism”. He was to die in Siberia.

His story is instructive because the Stalinists maintained for decades that he had been a spy in the service of the Italian embassy. Recent documents demonstrate that this was a complete lie. (On the contrary, the ambassador received precise instructions from the ministry to abandon inquiring about his well-being from the Soviet authorities, as occurred with the vast majority of the Italian internees.) Like many others, including Calligaris, Guarnaschelli — whose passport had been taken away by the Soviet authorities and who was left abandoned by the Italian party — asked the Italian embassy for new documents so that he could be legally repatriated: that was enough to be classed as a spy. His story has only become known because his companion, Nella Masutti — who was herself interned for a time — had the correspondence with his family and herself published after the war as part of an initiative by Trotskyists outside Italy. In Italy itself it is only since the 1970s that the official line has been treated with scepticism.

Even the concluding sentence of one of his last letters that is quoted with malignant joy by all our anti-communists and those who accept the PCI’s falsehoods (“Comrades we are mistaken … there is no socialism in the USSR”) is that of a young communist worker, albeit politically naive, who states that in the USSR there is no trace of socialism, that life is worse there than in Italy, but is certainly not written by someone who has ceased to believe in the possibility of socialism. It is a sign of how much his family were influenced by Stalinist propaganda that at first they did not believe what he wrote about his experiences and on the reality of the Soviet Union.

Dante Corneli (1900-1990): even if he was not completely with the Left it is important to draw attention to him. The communist militant who served more years than anybody — 24 years spent between the gulag and enforced exile — yet he managed to survive and devoted himself above all to publicising what had happened to his comrades. In 1919, during the nationwide strike in solidarity with the Hungarian Council Republic, George Lukacs who was in exile at the time, had stayed with him and then 20 years later he met him again while in detention in the USSR. In 1922 he fled from Tivoli after killing a fascist during the armed clashes that were taking place and found refuge in the USSR at the beginning of November that same year. He was in time to join the celebrations for the Vth anniversary of the revolution and marvelled at the fact that there were no platforms for the authorities and that every simple militant could shake hands and chat, as he did, with top-level Bolsheviks such as Trotsky and Bukharin (with whom he remained very close until his death). As a worker and member of the Opposition he was expelled from the Bolshevik Party in 1927 only to rejoin two years later with Stalin’s Left turn, mentioned earlier. After that he went less and less often to the Emigre Circles, distrusting the leadership cult and atmosphere of suspicion that hung over them. In 1936 he was arrested. His experience of the justice system is Kafkaesque. (For example, the verdict against him was first passed on the same day that Italy declared war on the USSR, and so the terms of the sentence were delayed as in addition to the Trotskyist charge against him he was now also convicted of being a fascist spy in the service of Mussolini.) In 1970 he was able to return to Italy thanks to Umberto Terracini, a childhood friend who took up his case. From then on, for the next 20 years, he wrote many texts telling the story of the communists in the USSR, of the victims — of whom he compiled an alphabetical list of about 3000 — and the persecutors. No publisher brought out any of these, not even in the atmosphere of the New Left in the 1970s, so he was forced to print them at his own expense. According to his sister’s account later in life, it also appears — although this is not certain — that some of the manuscripts were taken from his house by unknown agents of the … CIA, who were probably PCI functionaries. Only in 1978 and then only by La Pietra — a publisher in the orbit of the PCI — was Corneli’s Diary of a Resurrected Tiburtino[4] brought out and even this was cut in places to fit the PCI’s prevailing political line at the time. Only in 2000 would such texts be reprinted by the Liberal Foundation publishing house, that hotbed of dangerous revolutionaries such as Romiti, Tronchetti-Provera, Della Valle, Galli della Loggia, Panebianco and similar people.

The many public meetings he called to denounce his, and not only his, experience received scant attention. In 1978 he was invited by the television journalist Enzo Biagi to debate with Roasio and in 1982 was interviewed for La Repubblica by M. Mafai.

He died effectively isolated and in great economic difficulty.

Twenty years earlier the same sort of thing had happened to someone else from the province of Rome, Antonio Scariolo. When Stalin died he returned to Italy, to Genzano in the province of Rome, after many years in the gulag and “dared” to speak of his experiences to “comrades” in the PCI. The upshot of this was that he was first regarded as mad and then sacked from the “red” collective where he worked as a farm labourer, which meant he also lost the accommodation that went with the job.

Corneli is also significant for the eyewitness account he gives of Vorkuta. While most detainees were resigned to their fate and concentrated on surviving the shortages, the violence and daily duress that the terrible life in the camps imposed, yet others thought they had become victims by mistake and continued to have blind faith in the party and the Little Father, to whom hundreds of supplications for reviews of cases were directed daily. Corneli, however, draws a vivid and admirable picture of how the self­proclaimed Trotskyist detainees who were strong in their convictions and never tamed — many of them had already been detained for about a decade — represented a world apart. As a result of various struggle tactics, such as work abstentions, hunger strikes, passive resistance, the governors in many camps had allowed them to live together in the same barracks, to form homogeneous work columns (where comrades could help each other if one of them did not reach their individual production quota — which they had to do in order to receive enough rations to survive the Siberian climate), and thus to stay out of contact with the common criminals: the real bosses in the camps. Moreover, Corneli again recalls, these same people,

… after 10,12 or even 14 hours labour in the Siberian cold of at least 30 degrees below freezing, they still found the will and time for endless nocturnal discussions on capitalism, the party, the class, collectivisation, primary accumulation, Nazi fascism, democracy, etc.

A number of them, almost always Old Bolsheviks, had clandestine copies of books on Stalin’s index of banned publications, the contents of which they would explain to the younger comrades. Furthermore, they had found the most ingenious means to develop a tight correspondence network with detainees in other camps. One of the most famous of these was the “flying newspaper”, comprising a single article produced collectively, which the next comrades to be transferred from one camp to another would carry with them (hiding them behind buttonholes or inside their heavy fur hats) in order to develop the debate on the most talked-about subjects. When this system was discovered by the authorities they started to memorise what they had to pass on to the comrades in the gulag that was to be their next destination.

However, come 1937 all this finished. Life in the camps became palpably worse for everyone and — Corneli remembers — in Vorkuta alone the nocturnal executions of Trotskyists continued over many consecutive nights. The survivors lost their “privileges” and were dispersed throughout the immense concentration camp universe.

Vincenzo Baccala: ex-secretary of the Roman federation of the PCd’I, was arrested and shot in 1937 and remembered by his wife and companion Pia Piccioni, whose Silent Companion: A Widow in Stalin’s Gulags was one of the very first publications to appear after the war and was publicised in Battaglia Comunista. Incidentally, her account also confirms the validity of the Left’s position just after the murder of Matteotti.[5] Baccala was in prison in Rome at the time but was unexpectedly released, whereupon the prison governor pensively asked: “What are you going to do now?” While the centrist leadership of the PCd’I embroiled the party in the suicidal and weakening tactic of parliamentary anti­fascism and support for the damaged democracy, the Left maintained it could and should take the issue to the working class and appeal to the proletariat to check the fascist violence, given that this was the last chance to do so. The tactic they adopted was that of the so-called “flying meetings” [comizi volanti], or meetings held spontaneously outside the factory gates or in the popular districts to assess how far the workers were disposed to struggle.

The responses, even though partial, were positive and encouraging; there was a desire to resist among the workers and there could and should have been a call for the proletariat to struggle. Since nothing of the kind happened and there was no clear-cut call either to the party militants or the proletariat as a whole, the state apparatus was able to regalvanise and reorganise itself and the opportunity evaporated. And — as Vincenzo Baccala records — a few days later he was quietly rearrested in his own house so that he had to finish his sentence, after which he departed for Russia.

Edmondo Peluso (1882-1942): defined by the same bourgeois sources as the John Reed or the Che Guevara of the PCd’I, defined himself as a citizen of the world, having been born in Naples, gone to primary school in Spain, secondary school in the US and university in Germany and Switzerland. He worked as a journalist, labourer, fireman and a thousand other things ranging from South America to the Philippines and Japan.

He was a friend of De Leon (leader of the American Socialist Party), knew Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Karl Radek and even Laura Marx and Paul Lafargue in Paris. He was at Zimmerwald in 1915, where he held a centrist position along with all the Italian Socialist Parry, and was familiar with Lenin and the Bolshevik delegation. The year after, at Kienthal, he broke with party discipline and abstained from voting for the Centrist resolution that came out of this congress, being more and more convinced of the theses of the Left (Bolshevik and the Bremen and Hamburg group), later only regretting that he had only given his full support after October.

In 1918-19 he took part in the Spartacist movement in Berlin. In 1920 he was a member of the Abstentionist Fraction and then part of the Italian delegation to the Fourth Congress of the International in 1922. He collaborated in the editing of pamphlets for the International, something Lenin had explicitly asked him to do, having described him a year earlier as “one of the Italian party’s most brilliant writers who can and must write three or four times more than he does at present in all the languages that he knows”.

He even took part in the Cantonese insurrection in China in 1927, which was bloodily repressed and which he was fortunate to survive. He was arrested for avoiding military service and for defeatism (he had never been in the army in Italy) and was beaten up by Fascists many times from 1921 onwards. He finally emigrated to the USSR in 1926.

From then on he kept a low profile, joining the Bolshevik Party where, however, he doesn’t seem to have been drawn in among the suspects or the spies. It also appears that he hardly ever went to the Emigre Circle meetings.

He was arrested in 1938, interrogated and tortured to extract the confession which he never gave: which is why he wasn’t shot until four years later. (In general those condemned to death were executed a few weeks after their sentence.) Moreover it is remarkable, considering that everybody, from Bukharin to Zinoviev had confessed to everything.

He could not escape the gulag for the simple reason that there was nowhere to go. For example, the gulag of Karaganda, in central Asia, alone extended over an area as large as The Netherlands today. The uninhabited Republic of Komi in Siberia, a single immense gulag, which is as unknown to most people today as it was then, is 30 per cent bigger than Italy. Gulags such as Karaganda or Vorkuta appear to have accommodated up to 300,000 detainees each. If it’s certainly not Marxist practice to take for gold everything asserted by the historiographies, it is, however, entirely part of Marxist method to consider the abnormalities they describe without resorting to idealist categories such as intrinsic human evil, madness, etc. In class terms it is a matter of a gigantic process of original accumulation of capital in an immense country (laying aside “racial, religious, geographical factors”, etc) which, under the weight of foreign competition and the impact of the 1929 crisis, had to concentrate into a few years what other countries had taken decades or centuries to bring about. It was a gigantic extortion of absolute surplus value. The concentration camp system was based on metal extraction for heavy industry, clearing forests and opening up virgin land in immense uninhabited territories and the creation of a roadway infrastructure — even today in central Siberia there exists the so-called “Skeleton Highway”: 2000km of roads that cross the region under which the frozen bones of hundreds of thousands of corpses are interred. When, for example, technicians were needed to open up a new mine or an oil well, another Trotskyist-fascist “plot” and various other acts of sabotage were conveniently discovered, with the “culprits” being precisely the professionals who were needed and thus they were despatched to work for nothing. Meanwhile, the internees themselves realised that a week’s work by 100 people could have been done in a day or two with a tractor. One Italian ex-deportee, a Stalinist to the core, observed:

I was only sorry to have gone to the Kolyma mines escorted by the police and in handcuffs as if I was an enemy of the people. If they had asked me, appealing to my spirit of internationalism, I would certainly have gone voluntarily. — Anonymous, from Italians in Stalin’s Camps.

Finally, two words on the persecutors before the next generations can, and does, definitively throw them as they deserve into the dustbin of history. Aside from the already mentioned Ercoli (Togliatti), there was a stratum of leaders, the various Dozzas, Griecos, Bettis, Germanettos, Pastores and Roasios (the latter was initially close to the Left and therefore was that much more zealous with his later persecutions) who were even active in Spain, where they carried out their dirty duties, assassinating opponents from the Left and contributing to the suffocation of the most genuine aspirations of the Spanish proletariat.

[Translated from by Revolutionary Perspectives from Prometeo, June 2007

Notes

1 An account of this exchange, which occurred in a closed session of the ECCI, is available in English, along with our translation of Bordiga’s critical speech at the fifth session on the February 23, 1926. See The Last Stand of the Communist Left in the Third International: Bordiga at the 6th Enlarged Executive Meeting of the Communist International, in Internationalist Communist No.14.

2 The Committee of Intesa was formed before the Lyon Congress to articulate the concerns of the “Left” — who at the time still comprised a majority of the membership of the Communist Party of Italy — as the party leadership, now headed by Gramsci, fell more and more in line with directives for “Bolshevisation” from Moscow.

3 Oltretorrente was a working class district in Parma which, in the summer of 1922, was at the centre of a general strike against the Fascist takeover of the city led by Italo Balbo, a prominent henchman of Mussolini. By August 2, 3000 armed squadristi found themselves up against a ring of workers’ barricades. After four days of fighting the fascists withdrew, having been defeated by the armed resistance of 500 communist militants of the SAC (Squadre d’Azione Comunista, keenly insisted on by Bordiga and led by Fortichiari) together with the Arditi del Popolo (an armed body, comprising a miscellaneous collection of anarchists, republicans and socialists. Most of them were former soldiers of WWI.) Parma was taken afterwards only thanks to the deployment of the regular army and carabinieri

4 Someone from Tivoli, a town in the province of Rome.

5 Giacomo Matteotti was a parliamentary deputy and member of the PSU (Unified Socialist Party), whose members had basically sat on the fence between the PSI and the PCd’I when the Socialist Party split over whether or not to form a communist party and join the Communist International. His ill-disguised murder by fascist thugs in 1924 provoked a wave of working class disgust and a political crisis for Mussolini’s regime to which Gramsci and the rest of the PCd’I leadership supinely responded by joining the “Aventine Secession” — nothing more than a boycott of parliament by the non-Fascist parliamentary deputies — an opportunity lost since the signs are that the working class would have taken up a call for strikes and political protests if the communist party leadership had been prepared to take on the responsibility.

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3 Responses to “Italian communists in Stalin’s gulags”

  1. keith Says:

    The Italian Communist Left was not only Bordiga – the authors of this article come from the other “trunk” around Onorato Damen who more than once put Bordiga in a minority or aside altogether. Damen was a kind of James P Cannon type born in Italy. After the collapse of the Fascist regime, before the end of the war with the Nazi Germany, Damen with others founded the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (without the support of Bordiga) and proclaimed at the end of ’43 “The Fourth International rises”. They also sent some of their militants to argue with the partisans of Togliatti in the mountains of central Italy and a couple where shot dead for their trouble and someone else went missing. In my opinion Bordiga come out better in this dispute and went on to participate in the other “trunk” of Italian left communism.

    Thanks also for this opportunity to signal a very recent transcript of a discussion between Loren Goldner, an ex “Trotskyist” (with whom somewhere on Ozleft there’s already a link to a writing of his on Bordiga) and Left Communists in Korea that gives an overview of how the world went yesterday and is going today and the role of ostensible Trotskyists. (See links below) Goldner finishes up by saying, “so it seems as if Trotskyism is the school for further phase of revolutionary theory in many cases” but I have a strong suspicion that Ozleft and most of your friends, hopefully not all, are counted out. Thanks again for the space and now that you are back to reprints couldn’t we see the early ‘70’s SLL article on the “69 positions of Bob Gould,” it would bring back memories of yesteryear.

    http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/sanoshin.html

    Goldner’s web site: http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/

  2. Bob Gould Says:

    A couple of people have responded to the pointer drawing attention to this article on Leftist Trainspotters.

    Lucien Dondero says Dante Corneli’s material was published 30 years ago, and is hardly new. That’s true, but the work is not widely known, and the article Ozleft republishes is from the Spring 2008 number of Revolutionary Perspectives, and it was published in Prometeo in June 2007, so Ozleft is not alone in thinking that it’s useful to draw attention to this material.

    Separately, Einde O’Callaghan points out that Ozleft has also just made available an article from 1962 by Ernest Mandel, and a bit of explanation about Ozleft’s historical publishing may be in order.

    Since the site was set up in 2002, we’ve published material about day-to-day struggles in which we are involved and a lot of historical material about the Australian workers movement and the international workers movement, as well as the history of Marxist organisations nationally and internationally.

    Our reprints, Australian and international, are significant documents that don’t appear to be easily available elsewhere. In the case of the two historical documents we’ve just put up, we were motivated partly by a certain amount of anger at a kind of latter day, born-again pro-Stalinism that surfaces occasionally on international socialist lists such as Marxmail and Trainspotters.

    This sort of softness on Stalinism, dictated by a kind of ostensibly Marxist, but rather ignorant, Realpolitik, is sharply contradicted by the facts about Stalinism in the 20th century, yet many of the concrete aspects of the struggle against Stalinism, ideological and physical, seem to be forgotten by those who are soft on Stalinism.

    The aim of publishing this material is to contribute to the necessary ideological exposure of Stalinism to innoculate the Marxist left against any tendency to repeat past errors.

    There is an extraordinary amount of useful work being done by historians of the communist movement, in Germany and Austria in particular, and there are many books and articles about historical questions based on memoirs and experiences, and the diligent work of historians on the now-available Soviet archives.

    Much of this material, however, remains in historical circles, and seldom attracts comment on Marxist discussion lists, except in a rather negative way.

    The article by Mandel was an obvious candidate for a presence on the web as it’s a useful summary of a lot of the historical issues, and as far as we can see it has not been republished, and is not available online.

    Lucien Dondero says Corneli’s work may have been published somewhere in English, but I’m not aware of it, and I’d be grateful if he drew attention to where it was published, if that’s true.

    I have substantial political disagreements with the left communist current around Prometeo, but in the article on Italian communists in the gulag Prometeo’s political postions are secondary to the important historical material and the well overdue tribute to the 20 or so years of research by a presumably pretty rather poor Italian communist militant striving to set the record straight and produce a monument for posterity to his hundreds of comrades murdered by Stalinism.

    This historical activity, both Australian and international, is part of the work of Ozleft, as is the agitational activity we describe and record.

  3. Grazie ozleft Says:

    Thank you for putting this article up. I have read and even translated the works in the journal Prometeo for years now and it is good to see someone putting it up. My comrades often get attacked for their position on entering into united fronts with Stalinists and Socialdemocrats. Only a fool joins organizations of people that murder their comrades. As to the intervention in the Partisans of the Partito Comunista Internationalista, this was the most fruitful period of the PCInt. In fact at this time the PCInt boasted some 5,000 members, 12 to 14 regional federations in all. Their agitation among partisans was directed at partisans who were not in the Stalinist Italian Communist Party. It was successful enough that the Stalinists became frightened enough to kill Fausto Atti and Mario Acquaviva. They would not have been assassinated if they hadn’t posed a threat to the Stalinists. My late comrade Mauro Stefannini was literally born in prison on charges invented by a Stalinist judge (put in his position thanks to help from the US military) against his mother, who was eventually acquitted and released.

    I was a young man in school when I asked a professor I respected how he felt about Pinochet’s murder of his political opponents, his answer shocked me. He looked me in the eye and said, “we had to kill them, or they would’ve killed us” (he said it in spanish of course). The Stalinists have always treated their opponents this way. Even today they write slanders like the Vidal-Naquet article in L’Humanite accusing “Bordigists” (a word often used by Stalinists to label all of the left opposition in and from Italy) of holocaust revisionism. In their histories, like Spriano’s history of the Italian Communist Party they erase all their political opponents, they very ones they helped murder, in many cases the very people who founded and built the parties that they took over. How often do people hear the truth in histories that Bordiga was the first leader of the Communist Party of Italy. That the PCdI was a party where until 1926 a MAJORITY of both its rank-and-file and its leadership were “left-communists”. Gramsci and Togliatti took the party by typical Stalinist means taking advantage of the exile of the party during the fascist “ventanni” the twenty fascist years. Gramsci in the mid-twenties was predicting the immanent downfall of Mussolini. Bruno Fortichiari was the first leader of the Arditi del Popolo, who fought the first open battle against fascists. It wasn’t until the Seventies that a solid body of documentary proof was built up to refute the Stalinist lies that they were “agents of the gestapo”. This was reconfirmed when the KGB files were opened up after the fall of the USSR.

    My comrades have nothing to be ashamed of. Not like American leftists with their support for Stalinist Cuba and Stalinist North Korea, or those leftists organizations who think that it is tactically imperative that we work in and with organizations that promote this vicious form of the rule of capital which is evident through the forms of wage labor and political oppression that one can see in these societies. Socialists on US campuses like the ISO say things like “we are all Hamas and Hezbollah”, so it is no wonder that such people would support Stalinists as being “progressive”. To me this history is not “past” as long as Stalinists still slander and attack my comrades and write false histories about us all.

    Grazie Ozleft!

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