Lucio Magri's memoir of his time in the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the most successful Communist party in Western Europe, is a story of confrontation and compromise.On more than 450 pages he traces the party's and his own political trajectory, often spicing it up with personal anecdotes.
Magri joined the PCI in the mid-1950s. He believed that the communists had been the best fighters against the fascists. Those achievements, however, would far outweigh anything the party would accomplish in the years up to its disbandment in 1991.
In 1944 the leader of the PCI, Togliatti, returned to Italy and agreed to enter government, giving a clear indication that the PCI would not attempt to lead independent working class action. When Magri joined the PCI it was committed to the Italian state and was not only hailed as a model for communists but also for left social democrats.
1968 was the year when confrontation and compromise could no longer peacefully coexist. The new was battling the old. In Italy student militancy rapidly spread to the working class. By 1969 factory discipline was nonexistent, and the action of rank and file militants moved beyond the control of the bureaucracy. Unlike in 1956, when almost every Communist party in the world backed Khrushchev's butchery of the Hungarian Revolution, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 started to put communists like Lucio Magri at odds with others in their own party.
Against the backdrop of rising class struggle and imperialist adventures in the name of Communism, Magri, alongside four other collaborators, founded the paper Il Manifesto. They did not set out to organise students and working class forces outside the PCI, but said they aimed to offer a channel of communication between movements and the Communist tradition. The first issue sold more than 50,000 copies!
Magri's book explains how this put them at loggerheads with the PCI leadership, and his dismay that the Central Committee did not even bother to respond to published articles but decided instead to just expel the journalists associated with the project. Once again, as the tide of revolutionary struggle receded and the reforming Allende government in Chile was ousted by a coup, the PCI sought a new course of compromise. As the PCI leadership had given up hope of taking power by itself or in an alliance with the Socialist Party they sought accommodation with the Christian Democrats - the "historic compromise".
The title of the book comes from the Bertolt Brecht parable in which a tailor in the town of Ulm builds a contraption to allow humans to fly. The tailor plummets to his death, but Brecht reminds us that several centuries later people were able to fly. Just because something was not possible first time around, it does not mean it never will be.
The history of Italian Communism is Magri's story, but is an experience which many communists share. His balance sheet in which compromise with the system far outweighs confrontation might prove that we did not learn to fly first time round, but it does not prove that we never will.
The Tailor of Ulm is published by Verso, £30