The “Subversive” Life of Concetto Marchesi, a Classicist and Italian Communist

The rector of Padua University, the classicist Concetto Marchesi stunned colleagues in December 1943 as he fled the city calling on students to join the partisan uprising against fascism. A lifelong Marxist, he embodied the revolutionary spirit of the Italian Communist Party — but also the compromises militants made during the long decades of dictatorship.

Concetto Marchesi.

The Italian communist and classical scholar Concetto Marchesi had a turbulent life — as was well-illustrated by the row which broke out after the events held to mark his death.

The commemorations in parliament on February 14, 1957 were staged by the Italian Communist Party (PCI) leader Palmiro Togliatti, and represented the first time that the senate and Chamber of Deputies both met to salute the memory of an eminent Italian. Togliatti presented the ex-partisan and senator in the most elevated terms, even resembling those used in his eulogy of Joseph Stalin four years earlier.

According to Togliatti, Marchesi had been a moral teacher: a Sicilian socialist who became a Communist upon the party’s foundation in 1921, and in December 1943 called on Padua’s students to rebel against Fascism after going on the run from his post as university rector.

Togliatti described Marchesi as an ethical reference point but, simultaneously, a restless intellectual, a man faithful to the communist “religion” who was also a troubled “sower of doubts.” His model was Seneca — a philosopher touched by the “mystery that envelops all things.”

Togliatti’s operation was typically refined — yet hardly innocent. Another leading Communist intellectual of the time, philosopher Ludovico Geymonat, was troubled by this hasty “cult of personality,” and took to the pages of Turin’s La Stampa to raise doubts over the Latinist’s supposed intransigence. Despite the men’s collaboration during the Resistance, Geymonat recalled how in 1931 Marchesi had made the oath of loyalty to the Fascist regime.

Such a pledge was demanded of all academics, and to say “no” meant losing one’s job — only 11 out of 1,289 did refuse (the oath-taking was, after all, a public ceremony). Responding to Geymonat’s article, his PCI comrades denounced him for having made a “foul” attack. And in truth, his comments had less to do with the submission of the bulk of Italian academia to fascism in the 1930s, than with the decisive shakeup in the PCI’s relationship with intellectuals after the “terrible year” that was 1956.

In a paradox of history — and Marchesi’s story has several such undercurrents — 1956 was perhaps the only moment when Marchesi and Togliatti expressed visions that were truly in harmony. This was a particularly complex moment for the PCI, which had to deal with the fallout of the Soviet party’s Twentieth Congress – where Nikita Khrushchev denounced the crimes of Stalin — and in parallel to this, the Red Army’s bloody crushing of the massive worker revolt in Hungary.

All this brought painful splits in the Italian Communist front: a split with the main union federation, as Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL) leader Giuseppe Di Vittorio sharply dissented from the PCI’s support for the repression in Hungary; but also with intellectuals who signed the Manifesto dei 101 circulated by Antonio Giolitti, calling on the party to begin a discussion on Stalinism and the Hungarian workers’ revolt.

A delicate transitional moment in Communist history, the end of 1956 saw the PCI’s Eighth Congress— an event at which Marchesi’s own intervention drew considerable applause.

Marchesi’s speech at the congress is most famous for his cutting quip about how Stalin had been remembered — and denounced. Remarking sarcastically on Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, he argued that Stalin had been even more unfortunate than the emperor Tiberius, in encountering such a terrible historian as Khrushchev. Tiberius, for his part, had been denounced by Tacitus — but at least had the good fortune to draw the attentions of a great historian.

Marchesi’s complex intervention articulated a refined and original analysis of the historic moment that the global communist movement was going through. It also stood entirely outside the jargon, and the formulas, of the PCI itself. Marchesi developed an argument on the “new man” in the Communist countries, a process which, he suggested, would not be without “uncertainties and errors.”

His vision of democracy, more particularly, was elitist and pessimistic; for the Latinist, it was democracy itself that risked bringing about fascism, by inducing workers and peasants to vote against their own interests.

He explicitly attributed Communist intellectuals a pedagogical role of penetrating into and raising the level of consciousness. Presenting himself as the mouthpiece of this group, Marchesi sarcastically remarked on the defects of the intellectuals — especially those erudite but incoherent types who sacrificed realities to highfalutin ideas.

The speech thus summed up an anomalous intellectual’s tormented thinking. It is worth highlighting at least two of its key aspects. First, the ancient world, so well-known to the Latinist, was used more or less explicitly to reflect on the present: here, in his characterization of Tacitus’s defining, negative judgement on Tiberius, shone through the comparison with Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin.

But often, the scholar’s reflections on antiquity made visible his preoccupations as a Communist who had long been silent under Fascism but never repented. In a highly original historical short circuit, his reflection on the Roman revolution and especially Julius Caesar helped him grasp the necessary relationship between victorious revolution and military force. Marchesi’s Stalin — fêted in another famous speech in 1953 — was the military commander who had inspired fear and allowed socialism’s triumph.

The second key trait of Marchesi’s speech again regards his Stalinism. While also fed by reflection on Latin literature, this derived not from the Marxism-Leninism of the party apparatus, but rather from his own synthesis and re-elaboration of points of reflection drawn from Amadeo Bordiga’s communism and from the radical socialism of the nineteenth century.

In particular, he drew from Bordiga the idea that communism was born of dry necessity — from a frontal clash with the bourgeois front, thus doing without any electoral-democratic mediations.

A son of the nineteenth century, Marchesi was already forty when he joined the Communist split from the socialists in 1921. He was able to make his way through different and very different eras with an original and never-reconciled point of view, secluded and yet modern.

Now, another great classicist with communist ideas, Luciano Canfora, has dedicated an over-1,000-page volume to Marchesi. In this biography of the Latinist, entitled The Subversive, Canfora revisits a number of key themes in the history of the Italian — and international — communism of this era.

A Death Sentence

One such theme is the death of the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, executed by a Communist partisan commando in 1944 after the “death sentence” passed under Marchesi’s own name in the clandestine press.

The execution was a sort of “father-killing” for Italian culture, which had been profoundly influenced by Gentile. The decision to execute him was controversial even at the time; the antifascist front was divided, and the Tuscany region’s National Liberation Committee condemned the action.

This execution came about in a dramatic context, which directly involved Marchesi. Gentile had joined Benito Mussolini’s Nazi-collaborationist Salò Republic, but tried to advance an attempt at “national reconciliation,” in a bid to isolate the partisan forces.

In 1944 Marchesi became spokesman for a sharp polemical stance against Gentile’s plans. His article attacking the philosopher was published multiple times; in the version in the PCI’s own clandestine press, printed under an eloquent title (“Death Sentence”) a passage was added that concluded: “the people’s justice has issued the sentence: DEATH!”

For the purposes of this biography, Canfora revisited numerous publications on this episode, showing that the extra text owed to the Communist partisans Girolamo Li Causi and Eugenio Curiel. This latter had himself taken part in the PCI policy of working to subvert Fascist mass organizations, notably through the student paper Il Bò in Padua, where Marchesi was teaching.

This shows the involvement of the party’s top leaders in the decision to execute Gentile. But it should be said, this extra text was no betrayal of Marchesi’s own thinking — rather, it made it explicit. For Marchesi was a complex writer who used an allusive tone and sometimes even metaphors derived from Freemasonry, to which he likely belonged.

The interesting question, here is not the correctness of the decision or who was responsible for it. Rather, the execution is an (important) detail in the wider picture of Marchesi’s role in helping to reactivate (we might better say, consolidate) Communist political activism at Padua University and then the creation of the National Liberation Committee in the Veneto region. It was a genius move to establish it in Padua University, where Marchesi was rector (having been appointed by Pietro Badoglio’s government in September 1943).

Just a few meters away was the headquarters of the Salò Republic’s National Education Ministry, in the figure of Carlo Alberto Biggini, who remained in quasi-“amicable” contact with the rector even when, having headed into clandestinity, he launched his extraordinary — and rightly famous — “Appeal to the Students” to revolt against fascism. But before we get to this key moment, it’s worth taking a step back.

Marchesi had not taken part in the Communist Party’s founding congress in 1921, but stood squarely on its leftist positions, close to Bordiga’s, rather than those of Antonio Gramsci’s Turin l’Ordine Nuovo group, which later took over the leadership.

Never taking on any leadership function, Marchesi experienced the consolidation of the Fascist regime in some “seclusion,” seeking above all to protect himself against possible reprisals (on June 25, 1923 he graduated for the second time with a degree in Jurisprudence).

So, without doubt, from 1925 he became a “quiescent” Communist, even pledging loyalty to the regime. There are no grounds at all for the notion that he did this in response to party orders, as if out of its concern to maintain its presence in the crucial spaces of Italian cultural life.

But after this long silence of inactivity, he re-established contact with the Padua Communist group; it is difficult to say exactly when, but it came after a long period in which the party seemed almost extinct on Italian soil and its leadership was established abroad.

These contacts were made in a moment in which the Communists’ activity took the form of “entryism,” a bid to insert elements of class politics into the Fascist press: and one of its protagonists in Padua was Eugenio Curiel.

But the former Bordighist’s resumption of contacts did not imply either that he was now aligned to the PCI line and its various shifts in the complex geopolitical context of the time, nor — on PCI leaders’ side of things — apprehension toward the now-acclaimed and authoritative professor Marchesi.

The relationship between Marchesi and the PCI was complicated, tormented, full of comings and goings, and remained in this fruitful tension throughout the whole partisan war. One dramatic episode concerned his role as rector.

Having been nominated by the Badoglio government (which resulted from a royalist coup against Mussolini in July 1943) he then resigned when Adolf Hitler restored Il Duce to power — only for the Salò education minister Biggini to refuse his resignation.

The PCI exerted pressure for him to quit regardless, but Marchesi remained in post. More than that, he opened the new academic year 1943–44 with a speech praised by the Fascist press. Here, he insisted that labor was the foundation of the state:

The path that runs from the school to the workshop, from the scientific laboratories to the ploughed and seeded dirt, is today certainly much wider and straighter than it was before. There has always been labor in the world, or rather that toil imposed as a fatal damnation. But today labor has raised its back, has freed its wrists, has been able to lift its head and look up and around it.

Here, Marchesi alluded to the workers’ movement and even its symbols (the worker breaking the chains off his wrists appeared on the PCI membership card). But this also seemed to be in agreement with the Salò Republic’s own “social” policies.

The PCI reacted, threatening grave disciplinary measures: and in the meantime, the rector fled, writing his masterpiece “Appeal to the Students” from clandestinity. The minister hadn’t expected this, but the radio transmitted Marchesi’s strident words:

Students: I leave you with the hope of returning to you, as a teacher and comrade, after the fraternity of a struggle fought together. With the faith that enlightens you, with the indignation that sets you alight, do not allow the oppressor still to make use of your life, make your battalions rise up anew, liberate Italy from servitude and ignominy, add to your University’s banner the glory of a new, greater decoration, in this supreme battle for justice and peace in the world.

After this political masterpiece, there followed a series of personal initiatives by the Latinist, who took a leading role in the partisan struggle, autonomous of the PCI’s own organization. He did this especially through his work across the border in Switzerland, where he was responsible for parachuting munitions supplies to partisans in Italy.

But the already elderly professor also left his Swiss refuge to visit the “Partisan Republics” in the territory i partigiani had liberated in the Val d’Ossola. Here, he built contacts with partisan forces and the governmental giunta, and held meetings and rallies to discuss the partisan war’s political perspectives. From his speech, there again emerged a revolutionary line autonomous from the party’s call for “national unity” against Nazi Germany.

Marchesi became a de facto leader of Italian communism. Even if his speeches seemed to derive more from his academic activity and perhaps even his attachment to Freemasonry, he consistently directed his efforts toward Communist militants.

Thus, while the munitions parachutes were dropped by US and British planes, he made sure that they were also directed to the areas held by garibaldini (Communist partisans). At the same time, the radical and “Bordighist-extremist” kernel of Marchesi’s perspective, hard to bend to Togliatti’s “national” turn, died hard.

His vision of the partisan struggle remained that of an initial stage in an Italian revolution. Even once the war was over, a typical part of his analysis of democratic Italy was his denunciation of continuities with Fascism, for want of the necessary purges he had called for before Liberation.

But if Marchesi was a de facto leader, his potential (as a possible minister, for instance) was not “exploited” precisely because of his authoritative dissent “from the Left.”

But can we speak of Marchesi’s “political” thought? Yes, but only so long as we do not look for systematic political essays, so much as identify this thought within his scholarly production. Precisely when he was a “quiescent” Communist under Fascism, he entrusted his idea of the world and of the current historic moment to his essays on Latin literature. For his biography, Canfora has compared the various versions of these texts, which Marchesi would each time republish with significant alterations.

For instance, some points in his well-received History of Latin Literature were particularly liable to be reshaped by the demands of the present: in particular, the pages on Sallust and some key events in Roman history (especially revolutionary ones).

When put together, these variations show how a Bordighist evolved toward a system of thought that came to overlap with Gramsci. His portrait of Cato changed radically from the first edition (1923–24) where he was a positive example of an oppositionist, to the fifth, in 1939, where he became “maniacal, obtuse” — probably quite a provocation for all who had swallowed but never digested the oath to the regime.

Another very interesting case is Sallust, an example par excellence of political turncoatism, and a model for the torments of an isolated Communist who had to rethink matters faced with the fall of the Spanish Republic, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the outbreak of World War II and the extinction (or so it seemed) of the PCI.

And finally, Marchesi’s reflection on the Roman revolution allowed him to draw toward the positions of left-“Caesarism,” in which the critique of parliamentarism — sharpened in his analysis of the failed Gracchi brothers — led him to idealize the role of the armed people as a guarantee for the revolution’s success.

Yet if — as in Gramsci — he devoted little of his attention or sympathies to Spartacus, in Marchesi’s history there powerfully emerges the figure of the “proletarian and plebeian poor [pauper plebeius atque proletarius]” as “the actor in an immense and incomplete historical drama.” These words were added by the author to the 1939 edition of History of Latin Literature, and there they would remain up till the final 1953 version.

Yet, Marchesi’s Stalinist approach didn’t grant any space to the notion that the “proletarian and plebeian poor” might enjoy any self-determination. Again, his reading of a classical reference — an Aesop’s fable — can help us understand this.

In the fable of the beavers, after the other animals have each been killed, the last remaining beaver realizes that when they were all together they could have headbutted the hunter to death. Marchesi makes a surprising comment, on this text, recalling Seneca’s question to the slaveowners: “and what if the slaves were to count themselves?” (i.e. recognize their strength of numbers).

His bitter response: “the slaves will never count themselves” unless there is “another non-slave to teach them to add up.” Such was his reading already in 1929; here, Marchesi had already acquired the interpretative framework that would be his lodestar in his PCI Eighth Congress speech mentioned above.

His essays on Latin literature like his appeal to the students of Padua seemed to share a certain duplicity — cultivated at great effort, in the illusion that his message would mostly be addressed to the (restricted) circle able to understand it.

His was an almost esoteric communism, which endured when the Party was not there, yet was able to emerge again at the moment of action, even disregarding the Party that really was there. And perhaps this was Marchesi’s great teaching.