Francesco Misiano, the Italian Communist Who Brought Battleship Potemkin to the West
The Italian Communist Party was founded 100 years ago today. One of its most remarkable early militants was Francesco Misiano — a keen internationalist who fought gun in hand in the German Revolution before becoming a leading light of Soviet cinema.
Escaping the murderous fury of nationalist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s arditi, forerunners of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, Francesco Misiano was driven at tremendous speed through the fabulous Istrian landscape. As his daughter Carolina later recalled, his rescuer, the Hungarian revolutionary Margherita Bluch, remarked that this was a perfect scene for a film. Bluch had fought together with Misiano during the Berlin Spartacus uprising of 1919. But she could have had little idea that her fellow passenger would himself play an important role in the history of world cinema. For Misiano brought Battleship Potemkin to the West in his luggage — and became a leading light of the USSR’s most impressive film studios.
Of the militants who founded the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in January 1921, few led such extraordinary lives as Misiano. Yet apart from a biography published in Italy in 1972, attempts to pull together the different threads of his life have been rare. Other protagonists of the PCI’s foundation left a theoretical legacy of real significance (as in the case of Antonio Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga), left their stamp on Italian history (like wartime leader Palmiro Togliatti), or became household names among communist militants. Misiano’s legacy is rather more complex — and not reducible to a body of writing or thinking.
Ironically, it seems that the only footage that we have of Misiano is that showing him sat beside Hollywood superstars Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Mary Pickford during their trip to Moscow, which he organized. Misiano’s career in film as a prominent figure of the Mezhrabpom “Red Dream Factory” in Moscow and the Spartacus film company in Berlin has inspired much of the attention he has received in Italy in recent years. Yet the biography of this towering figure is rich in moments with contemporary resonance, worthy of rediscovery. If there is a thread running through Misiano’s story, it is the centrality of international human solidarity. In this sense, the Italian Communist’s biography offers us an opportunity to question many of the dominant myths about twentieth-century history.
Becoming a Socialist
Francesco Misiano was born in 1884 in the small municipality of Ardore in Calabria, Southern Italy. He soon moved to nearby Palizzi Marina, where his mother had been offered a teaching post at the infant school. Sent at age ten to study at the boarding school run by Franciscan monks in Assisi, in his early twenties he went on to work for the Italian railways. He joined both the Italian Socialist Party and the trade unions in Naples, where a radical workers’ movement had sunk deep roots in one of Italy’s growing industrial centers.
The buildup to Italy’s invasion of Libya in 1911 would forge, in Misiano, a working-class politics deeply embedded in an anti-militarist and increasingly internationalist perspective. Soon becoming a major figure in the Naples movement, Misiano thought that the working class could be united under the banner of anti-militarist struggle. This was an especially pressing problem as World War I loomed.
Particularly significant was his involvement in Naples’s “Red Week” in early summer 1914 — a popular insurrection throughout Italy, in reaction to a police massacre of anti-militarist demonstrators in Ancona. Both he and Bordiga were sacked from their jobs for their active involvement in inspiring railway workers to join the general strike in Naples.
Sent by his union to Turin, Misiano became ever more active in resisting Italy’s slide into involvement in the European conflict, taking on an increasingly combative role in anti-militarist meetings and agitation. This led to his arrest, imprisonment, and even internment in a psychiatric ward — eventually followed by his enforced enlistment to the front.
Misiano intended to agitate against the war within the ranks. But the military command was aware of his oratorical and agitational skills and realized that he would be more of a threat inside the army than out. It thus seized at an opportunity to remove him, accusing him of “desertion” when he visited his relatives to bid farewell before returning to his barracks. Faced with a military tribunal that could decree a death sentence, he instead crossed the border to neutral Switzerland.
In Zürich, Misiano worked as a journalist and became editor of the Socialist paper L’Avvenire dei Lavoratori (Workers’ Future). Here, he forcefully advocated the internationalist and antiwar stance of the Zimmerwald Conference. This implied a hardening of his relations with reformist Socialists, who took a neutral “neither support nor sabotage” stance toward Italy’s war effort. He would eventually call for the expulsion of those unwilling to advocate clear opposition to the war.
Zürich was home to antiwar exiles from around the continent, and Misiano met figures who would play a major role in postwar revolutionary movements. His acquaintance with Vladimir Lenin was rather fleeting, although in March 1917 L’Avvenire dei Lavoratori did publish Lenin’s “Farewell Letter to the Swiss Workers.” He later recalled observing the Russian revolutionary leader ordering proletarian fare at a Swiss casa del popolo.
Another acquaintance in Zürich, Willi Münzenberg, would become one of his closest partners in the postwar years. Misiano was also involved in an association of those without citizenship. But by 1918, his own presence in Switzerland had become precarious, and he was arrested along with an anarchist friend from his Calabrian childhood, Bruno Misefari.
Misiano was soon released, but by the end of that year, he realized that his time being able to organize in Switzerland had come to an end. He now sought to travel to Russia and edit a newspaper for Italians who found themselves there at the time of the October Revolution. Yet events in Germany meant that his life soon took a different turn.
Having set out from Switzerland for Moscow, Misiano stopped off in Germany. There, he found himself in the midst of a revolutionary situation, with the communist-led Spartacus uprising already underway.
Reaching Berlin in early January 1919, he immediately set off to Wilhelmstrasse 114, to the offices of Rote Fahne, where he found Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. A series of his articles appeared in the paper, written in French and translated by Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Luxemburg also took him to give a speech at a rally, which she translated for the demonstrators. His address occupied much of the front page of the January 4, 1919 Rote Fahne, titled “Prospects for an Italian Revolution.”
But Misiano was soon in the thick of the Berlin uprising. The next day, he found himself alongside a group of Italians and others of various nationalities occupying the editorial office of Vorwärts, organ of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) now at war with Liebknecht, Luxemburg, and comrades. The militants occupying the office had to withstand the bullets and cannon fire of the Junkers; Misiano was left with two holes in his Russian shapka hat and a bullet tearing through his overcoat. His group was eventually forced to surrender, enduring brutal treatment and humiliation (at one point, his captors, believing him to be Russian, were prepared to shoot him on the spot). He was eventually sentenced to ten months’ imprisonment in Berlin.
A solidarity campaign was organized by Italian socialists, with his Naples comrade Bordiga playing an active part. While Bordiga and Misiano had their tactical differences, they took a similar stance on the need to maintain working-class unity while purging reformists from the Socialist Party. In November 1919, Misiano traveled back to Italy carrying a letter from Lenin on the struggle within Socialist ranks.
When Misiano returned to Italy, he had already been elected to parliament, for Naples and Turin. This itself expressed his popularity in the working-class movement, given his intransigent support for workers’ struggles, his willingness to fight in a revolutionary uprising, and his internationalist denunciation of war. Yet these factors also made him a figure of hatred for others. The Calabrian author Maria La Cava, who at one point wrote to Leonardo Sciascia about a plan to write a novel on Misiano’s life, spoke of the “persecution of Francesco Misiano,” in which a bourgeoisie driven crazy by pride at national victory over Austria saw Misiano as their chosen victim precisely because of his extreme human integrity as a revolutionary.
The years 1920–21 would see a ferocious onslaught of media vituperation, harassment in parliament, and legal persecution against Misiano, combined with physical assaults by Fascists in town after town. Even some Socialist parliamentary colleagues refused to show the most minimal solidarity. On June 13, 1921, by which time the Communists had split from the Socialist Party, he was subjected to a horrendous physical assault by fascist and nationalist MPs who ejected him from the chamber. He was further assaulted, forcibly shaved, and spat upon by baying fascist squadristi through the streets of Rome. The indifference of liberals and government MPs to the assault on Misiano was a sign that fascism was now deeply ingrained among the political classes. Here, the 1924 murder of reformist Socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti — a key moment in the consolidation of the Fascist regime — had seen its dress rehearsal.
Misiano was already been marked out because of his antiwar stance. In 1920, the nationalist poet D’Annunzio had issued an order to hunt down the “wretched deserter” who had come to Rijeka (object of his own neocolonial desires) to agitate against D’Annunzio’s obscene military adventure to the city on the Yugoslav border. Demanding that his men punish Misiano immediately upon finding him, D’Annunzio declared himself ready to assume the responsibility and “honor” of any punitive act. Only at the last moment was Misiano rescued from an expedition which could easily have resulted in his death. Physical attacks continued. But it was parliament itself that finally drove Misiano from Italy, voting to annul his election and revoke his parliamentary post after he was convicted of desertion.
Proletarian Solidarity, Proletarian Film
Given these real threats to his physical safety and personal liberty, Misiano left Italy for the last time on December 15, 1921. He spent the remaining decade and a half of his life living in Moscow. But until the early 1930s, he regularly visited Berlin and traveled throughout Europe in his work for an organization — International Workers’ Relief (IWR, known as Mezhrabpom in Russian) — set up in 1921 to build international solidarity and relief for famine victims in Russia’s Volga region. It became both an organ of transnational workers’ solidarity and involved in manifold cultural, media, and economic activities.
IWR’s colorful history is yet to be written. As well as being hysterically denounced by anti-communists as designed to attract hapless “useful idiots” to serve Soviet interests, the IWR was also long airbrushed out of Soviet accounts. This especially owed to the independence of its leading figure Münzenberg — known to Misiano already in his Swiss days — who gave primacy to the principles of anti-fascism and anti-colonialism even when they conflicted with the needs of 1930s Soviet realpolitik.
Münzenberg’s life has long been an object of special fascination amongst historians, but all too often their readings are fueled by Cold War paradigms and an evident ideological dislike of their subject. This fascination with Münzenberg has also often relegated Misiano’s role in this organization’s history.
Misiano has been “resurrected” from historical oblivion in recent years mainly in connection with his role at the Mezhrabpom film studio (initially known as Mezhrabpom-Rus’) as administrator, producer, and cofounder. Indeed, there are an endless number of cinematographic tales linked with his name, from his invitation of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to Moscow, his role in bringing the film Battleship Potemkin to Berlin (a recent book on him was titled The Pacifist Who Travelled With Battleship Potemkin in his Luggage), his friendship with Vsevolod Pudovkin (whose fame once rivaled Sergei Eisenstein’s), and his part in funding Aelita, one of the greatest sci-fi films in the history of cinema.
Misiano also played a major role in Prometheus Film in Germany, initially set up to distribute Soviet movies and then itself becoming a major film producer. Indeed, it is thanks to Misiano (along with Münzenberg) that the genre of Proletarischer film emerged. A significant body of German film produced by the workers’ movement from the mid-1920s to 1932, it would leave a trace on film history proper, whether in the guise of Slatan Dudow and Bertolt Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe or the works of Phil Jutzi and Werner Hochbaum.
With Hitler’s rise in Germany, Misiano and Münzenberg invited many important German cultural figures to work at Mezhrabpom in the USSR, including Erwin Piscator, along with Brecht the other great figure of epic theater. Nonetheless, given Berlin’s key importance to Mezhrabpom operations and the growing climate of suspicion in the USSR, in the 1930s the studio’s future became increasingly threatened. Like many of the other institutions emerging during the New Economic Policy (NEP) period, it was doomed to extinction.
While Misiano’s role in Soviet cinema and cultural trends was pivotal, it would be wrong to ignore the fact that he was still in active contact with his Italian comrades engaged in political struggle. These relations would, at times, be strained, given apparent differences of perspective — or an incomprehension of his new own role in the USSR. In the early 1920s, Misiano had been critical of the PCI’s neglect of political emigres and its relative indifference to organizing among and supporting political refugees. There were also differences on the anti-fascist struggle and the need to seek alliances to carry it out more effectively — a concern at the center of Misiano’s attention. The 1927 formation of an International Committee for the Study of Fascism and the publication of Faschismus journal (which he edited under the pseudonym “Martini”) were tasks that Misiano wholeheartedly occupied himself with.
That same year, the League Against Imperialism founded by Münzenberg and Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (Chatto) held its first meeting in Brussels. Misiano was present at this and the following conference and took an active part therein. While this body did, in retrospect, have certain Eurocentric aspects, it was also the first attempt to create a global anti-colonial movement and another significant contribution to Misiano’s own deeply felt internationalism.
In the final year of Misiano’s life, as encroaching Stalinist terror threatened to strike, he asked to be sent to Ethiopia to carry out anti-fascist agitation against the Italian colonial occupiers, who had invaded that country in 1935. This echoed his 1920 journey to Rijeka to agitate against the nationalist adventurer D’Annunzio. It was also a harbinger of the trip made by the Italian Communists’ “Three Apostles” — Ilio Barontini, Domenico Rolla, and Anton Ukmar — to support the military resistance to Italian colonialism in Ethiopia.
These final years saw Misiano’s role decline — and in Moscow, suspicion gradually fell upon him. Even in 1930, two members of the PCI hierarchy fiercely attacked him for his separation from the Party and supposed “petit bourgeois” stance. There is archival evidence that he made public criticisms of the reigning climate of intolerance — and the brutal expulsion of Bordiga’s followers from the party.
Misiano was stripped of his posts in 1935. His presence at a party along with suspects arrested after the assassination of Sergei Kirov suggests that he, too, would near-certainly have been among the victims of the Great Terror, had he not died at a Crimean sanatorium in August 1936. Another Italian communist victim of the Stalinist terror, Emilio Guarnaschelli — already in confinement and destined to be executed two years later — wrote from captivity of his esteem for Misiano.
Many felt a similar respect. As one scholar of cinema, Alexander Schwarz, wrote: “From the documentation found in the archives there emerges the image of a humane person, thoughtful, loyal, above all conscientious and aware of his own responsibility, with few dark sides to his character.” Francesco Misiano was a “forerunner of the spirit of international solidarity and of creative collaboration beyond all borders.”