When Italy’s Communists Painted Naples Red

Founded 100 years ago today, the Italian Communist Party fought its most famous battles in the country's Northern industrial heartlands. But in the Southern city of Naples, it had to tailor its activity to a more complex reality — a city whose large informal economy reflected the deep inequalities on which the Italian state was founded.

Italian Communist Party demonstration in Naples, Italy, 1944.

Naples has long had a special place in the imagination of the Left. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote a famous 1924 essay on the Mediterranean city, describing its “poverty and misery” and the control the mafiosi of the camorra had on Neapolitans’ daily lives. Here, “nothing is enjoyable except the famous drinking water.”

But to stop at these descriptions would be unfaithful to Benjamin’s intentions. Having described the gritty grayness of Naples, he then explains how its misery and disorder gives life to a vibrant openness, rarely found elsewhere. “Building and action,” Benjamin writes, “interpenetrate in the courtyards, arcades, and stairways. In everything, they preserve the scope to become a theater of new, unforeseen constellation. The stamp of the definitive is avoided. No situation is intended forever.”

For Benjamin, as for many before and after him, Naples represents a rather vivid image of urban disorder, but one which has its own internal logic. This is a logic of unchastened, sporadic movement and organic forms of sociability which evade any schematizing analyses, whether sociological or political.

This unique situation also represented a particular challenge for organizers in the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI). Even as it became a mass party of two million members in the aftermath of World War II building “red bastions” in the industrial North, conditions in the Southern port city demanded it engage with more local realities. This problem is at the heart of Maria Antonietta Macciocchi’s Letters from Inside the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser, still today one of the finest books about the PCI available in English.

Inside the Party

The book is made up of a series of letters between Communist activist and journalist Macciocchi, and Louis Althusser — the French Marxist philosopher who remains a towering presence for many on the left even today. Originally published in 1969, Verso Books reissued a paperback version last year.

Letters is an account of Macciocchi’s time in Naples. Before arriving in the Southern city, she had been a Paris correspondent for the PCI daily l’Unità. After she lived an intellectual’s life in the halls of rue d’Ulm and the cafés of the Latin Quarter, the PCI “parachuted” her back into Italy. Her mission: to return to politics as an active militant, to get voted into parliament (as she did in 1968) and to serve what Italian militants reverentially called “il Partito” (simply “the Party”) as an elected representative.

Letters tells a tale of an activist afraid and insecure of her mission. Had Macciocchi been sent up North, to industrial Turin or the communist heartlands of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, life would have been easier. But il Partito decided that she would be most “useful” in Naples — a move she rightly understood as the PCI’s attempt to marginalize her within the sphere of its national political activities.

Naples, Macciocchi writes, is “decadent and diseased.” In tones not all too different from Benjamin’s graphic descriptions of the city, she is continuously surprised — and saddened — by the depravity of Naples and the hopelessness of its people. “If Naples had Argus’s hundred eyes,” Macciocchi writes poignantly, “her poverty would make her cry out of every one of them.”

At the heart of Macciocchi’s assessment of Naples was its Lumpenproletariat — what Italians call the sottoproletariato. While the city was home to over a quarter of the South’s industry in this period, most Neapolitans continued to exist outside of the industrial-capitalist schemas then in vogue in the PCI. Working lives remained largely informal, occupied by activities and encrusted in systems closer in form to feudalism than to twentieth-century capitalism. The electoral choice for Neapolitans was not simply a preference for Communists or the dominant Christian Democrats, but often dictated merely by whose offer of work was most credible.

In fact, the condition of the sottoproletariato and its pertinence to communism had been a recurring theme throughout Italian Marxist thought. Its most widely read analyst was Antonio Gramsci. Already in 1923, two years after the PCI was founded, the Sardinian Marxist spoke of the “issue of the relations between workers and farmers,” diagnosing the problem facing Italian communism as inherently determined by a nationwide compromise between capitalist expansion and the backwardness of an agricultural society.

This assessment — ostensibly listened to by some in the PCI but ignored in practice by most of its activists — also rears its head in Macciocchi’s own writings. “The capitalist equilibrium here in Italy,” Macciocchi tells Althusser, “is based on an organic interrelationship between growth and backwardness: poverty here is functional to well-being elsewhere.”

Local Identity

As Gramsci argued — and Macciocchi came to realize — the question of the sottoproletariato was not simply an issue of relations of labor and capital, but also of Italy’s territorial unity. Here, Naples, the largest city in the South, came to represent the geographic, economic, and social divisions which had undergirded the country ever since its formal unification in the 1860s.

In Gramsci’s day, as in Macciocchi’s (and even our own), to be Neapolitan would often come before being Italian. To be Neapolitan — partenopeo — corresponds to a set of ties which often exclude any other. And this is not hard to understand. Massimo D’Azeglio, one of Italy’s founding fathers, famously said: “We have made Italy, now we must make Italians.” To many in the South, and especially in Naples, this phrase echoed down the peninsula as a threat — a unification imposed from Piedmont, seven hundred kilometers away. As Macciocchi writes, Naples found itself stripped of its former glory during the Risorgimento, with its industries and universities having to acquiesce to the dominance of the North.

Still now, over a century and a half since Italian unification, national politics has done little to fix this imbalance. After World War II, the so-called “Cassa del Mezzogiorno” (Fund for the South) was established to encourage the industrialization and development of the bottom half of Italy. Now dissolved and devolved into more regional forms, this national fund was also blamed for some of Italy’s most corrupt politico-financial machinations, at the meeting point of state and private interest. It was felt, in Naples as in the South as a whole, that Italian politics concerned Rome and the North; the rest was cast aside.

As Macciocchi observed in Letters, even those PCI members who hailed from the Southern city, were “never seen around Naples anymore” once they were elected. This included some of il Partito‘s most notable figures, such as Giorgio Amendola, Gerardo Chiaromonte, and Giorgio Napolitano, who became Italy’s first ex-Communist president in 2006 (now as a centrist Democrat). It was with this reality in mind that Macciocchi wrote that, for Neapolitans, the onset of general elections must be like “the arrival of ten ships in the Bay of Naples, each crammed full of foreign tourists.”

Maria Antonietta Macciocchi.

It would be wrong to see the PCI as a merely alien presence in Naples. The Southern city had been home to Amadeo Bordiga, alongside Gramsci one of the party’s key founders. He was sidelined and smeared as Stalinism encroached; for PCI author Emilio Sereni, writing in 1938, Bordiga’s dissident stance itself owed to the Naples environment: “Having become a spy and agent of Fascism, this bandit has done little but follow the honored career of the thug, of the Neapolitan camorrista,” intoned Sereni’s Napoli.

But for many activists in Naples, local ties came first. In exposés published in l’Unità, as well as in press not aimed at the party faithful, local PCI members would describe themselves as “first Neapolitans and then communists.” And if this was the case for those already conscious of, and engaged in, the class struggle, what could be said of the sottoproletariato — those abandoned by party and country alike? These were the people from whom Macciocchi believed it necessary to learn, and not treat with condescension.

To avoid a mere Communist reformulation of the electoral clientelism adopted by the Christian Democrats, the PCI had to engage seriously with the particular social and political problems Naples presented. Unless il Partito were to consign itself to its limited electoral relevance in the South — which, however, began to change in the 1970s, with its gradual but steady advance in southern cities, including Naples — activists would need to “actually live among the people, in the depths of the back streets.”

Incendiary Criticisms

The publication of the Letters proved controversial. Not only had Althusser initially asked Macciocchi to avoid the letters reaching the public eye, but what Macciocchi had to say about the PCI itself proved incendiary. Her criticisms of il Partito were such that she equated it to the Church, and its followers to the faithful: blind to the political realities they were dealing with and often uninterested to learn; a party which was too centralized and too self-referential, with an eye only to the internal machinations and meanderings of both apparatus and leaders. At least at its higher levels, it seemed uninterested in the woes of the people, and too often its political language and analyses would rely on clichés instead of properly reflecting popular demands.

But for Macciocchi the PCI’s problems ran deeper than a lack of analysis. The internal culture of il Partito had become decadent. It had abandoned the revolutionary spirit which led to its founding in Livorno in 1921; its leaders had, Macciocchi contended, acquiesced to a morally bankrupt political modus operandi.

Macciocchi especially identified a bureaucratic tendency in the postwar party. Palmiro Togliatti, the PCI’s leader from the late 1920s up to his own death in 1964, had reoriented Italian communism along Stalinist lines. It was through Togliatti, many PCI activists believed, that Italian communism had given into a subtle authoritarianism.

It was this legacy which Macciocchi, along with countless intellectuals and activists inside il Partito, tried to fight. Even the treatment of those few women allowed into the PCI’s managerial echelons was indicative of the crisis the party faced. Recounting an engagement with a senior PCI leader and elected official, she writes, sarcastically, that he would “fraternally” refer to her as “daughter.”

If the PCI had lost its way, Naples was a significant case in point. For Macciocchi, to speak of the Pill to mothers who continued having children as the sole means of substance (due to government grants for large families), was a deep failure for what was meant to be the people’s party. And so, too, to speak of the war in Vietnam with people who not only didn’t know of the existence of that country but whom were still struck by polio, unable to feed themselves and their children, and bound by the dual patronage of camorra and Southern politics.

Macciocchi’s words were harsh — and may appear too caustic a criticism of what was Italy’s most effective bulwark against the stupefyingly corrupt Christian Democrats. Yet, the bulk of her criticisms were reserved not for Communists themselves, but for the party’s leaders. Unable to see past their own apparatus, they risked compromising communism’s millenarian calling — and its redemptive power for people like the Naples sottoproletariato.

Democratic Path

The decade following the publication of Letters proved to be a significant decade for Italian communism. From 1972, under new general secretary Enrico Berlinguer, a “Eurocommunist” turn sought greater distance from Moscow and an emphasis on the PCI’s democratic path to socialism. Not only did this lead it to its electoral high-water mark (34 percent, in the 1976 general election), but in 1975, Naples elected its first (and only) communist mayor, Maurizio Valenzi. He would have to lead the city through a 1980 earthquake which killed almost three thousand people.

Yet, many activists close to Macciocchi were critical of Berlinguer’s moves. They saw his softer tones, including a “historic compromise” to back the Christian Democrats in government, as ineffective in dealing with the party’s own structural problems. In 1977, she was expelled — and went on to join the libertarian Radical Party.

Naples, Italy. (@m.nikitin / Flickr)

Half-a-century on, the Letters provide both anecdotal and analytical insight into one of Western Europe’s largest Communist Parties. From Macciocchi’s descriptions of lived communism in Naples, of the unintentional — and intentional — religiosity which inhered in the way it portrayed itself, to Althusser’s reflections on the PCI’s political and “scientific” method, the Letters are a significant source for the history of European communism.

But to end with a reflection on the nature of the PCI would not be faithful to the spirit — or the letter — of Macciocchi’s words. In keeping with her struggles and her discontentment, this should be an occasion to look once more that Naples which was ineffectively courted by il Partito, and to which Macciocchi owed her profoundest, and most touching, assessments of the fight for an idealized communist future.

More than any theoretical extrapolation which the Letters can provide, what Macciocchi gives us today is a sober — and somber — depiction of Naples, of a city with a distinctive culture and a distinctive history which has found itself the victim of nineteenth-century nationalism as of twentieth-century liberalism.

Unfortunately, for many Naples remains a city better described by the melancholy of Il Postino’s Massimo Troisi or the irony of the famous comic performer Totò, rather than by Marx and Engels’s assessments of rising industrial capitalism. Naples continues to give rise to those organic forms of life which seemed to escape the structuralist grasp of il Partito’s reports; and national politics for many remains like witnessing the arrival of foreign ships at Naples’s ports. Its people, its citizens, are Neapolitans — but only because the rest of Italy has deserted them.