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Learning From History: How A Popular Front Survived Fascist Forces In Mussolini’s Italy

At a time when the CPI(M) is looking to a popular front against the BJP/RSS, lessons can be found in far-flung Italy.

Of late, columnists and analysts have been projecting scenarios that may emerge after the General Elections in 2019. Arun Shourie, a former admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the invincibility of the Modi phenomenon is a myth. Regional satraps such K. Chandra Sekhar Rao of Telangana, Chandra Babu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal have also found their voice.

However, by going back into the BJP/RSS fold, Nitish Kumar, once seen as the non-Congress non-BJP camp’s probable Prime Ministerial candidate lost the race for 2019 well before it began. On the other hand, the leading component of Indian Left, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) entered into an animated discussion on the possible consequences of a popular front against the all-mighty BJP/RSS combine.

This conjuncture forces us to look back at a chapter in the history of Communist Parties. It was a time when they faced the ire of fascist forces in Europe. The Communist Party of Italy stands tall among the other European nations, it being also the Party which dared to take innovative decisions while discarding the advice of the then USSR in its fight against fascism. It would be appropriate to look back into the history of Communist Party of Italy, specific to that period.

Communists who were engaged in an underground struggle with Mussolini since 1926 were more attuned to the realities of fascism than their European counterparts. At the same time, years of clandestine operations had taken their toll not just on the number of cadres imprisoned but also on the party’s self-confidence. From the 1930s, Italian communists in exile made repeated attempts to reconstruct the democratic apparatus that had been destroyed after the onset of a full-scale fascist repression. However, efforts to build a solid structure of democracy floundered in the face of Mussolini’s consolidation of power.

The Lateran Pacts of 1929 brought about reconciliation between the State and the Church for about a decade, in a period which had neutralised much grassroot opposition. Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 and evocations of imperial grandeur elicited a degree of positive support. The symbiotic relationship that developed between Italian business interest and the Fascist hierarchy further contributed to the regime holding onto power until an impending defeat in World War II.

Over these years, all that Communists could accomplish was the establishment of a fragile network of activists that crumbled time and again under blows from the police, leaving only pockets of isolated loyalists. The Comintern moved from sectarian radicalism to democratic moderation, had treaties with enemies and courted allies. The sectarian extremism of the 6th Congress was superseded by the popular democratic front directives to form alliances with socialists and even courting democratic sections of the bourgeoisie in the joint struggle against fascism.

After the Non-Aggression Pact signed by Russia and Germany on August 1939 and the ensuing outbreak of World War II, some of European Communist Parties reiterated their isolationism in spurning cooperation with the democratic parties in the struggle against an inter-imperialist conflict. Only after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union did communists revert to united-front tactics with all forces opposing the Nazi aggression.

By 1934, the emerging Nazi security threat to the Soviet Union brought together all the factions in the international communist movement and in support of Stalin’s maneuvers to buttress the attempts of the Nazi’s security structure advancing the cause of imperialism. Stalin saw the encircling of the USSR as a move to cripple its economy by forcing it to redraw its economic priorities from building socialism in the country to protecting the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union. It thus facilitated the strengthening of united-front tactics, bringing together social democracies of the West along with the Left and democratic forces, both in European countries and also in countries such as India, then under colonial rule.

After Hitler’s invasion of USSR, European communist parties waged an armed struggle from the rear front which forced Hitler to split his force in order to face an onslaught from the rear, thus having to weaken an army on the war-path in the Balkan countries.

The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was preoccupied with expanding their presence throughout the country and in waging war against Mussolini’s fascist state. During the Popular Front years, the Polit Bureau of the PCI even went to the extent of devising slogans to meet the political events of the period and accordingly carved out new slogans such as “ new democracy”. This slogan, coined in the wake of Spanish Civil War, had potential for rebuilding a post-Fascist Italy.

Though, despite all their clarity when it came to tactical maneuvers, the position of the PCI was weak on the ground during the Popular Front era. Under severe attacks by Mussolini’s Fascist state, the their numbers during the time had been reduced to a mere 2,400. From such a sorry state of affairs, the PCI graph consistently went up during the final phase of the war, during which they even coordinated with the centrist parties in matters of military activity and organisational synchronisation by becoming part of Italian Committees of National Liberation.

The experience of the Popular Front against fascists reveals that by the ability to utilize conjunctures to advance its own goals, the Left in any country can come close to its goals and expanding its zones of influence rather than by working in isolation. Thus, the decision of participating in the Committees of National Liberation by the Italian Communist Party was guided by the prevailing national political scenario and came up well ahead of the French Communist Parties who decided to be part of post-World War governments in continuation with their popular front strategies. Such a stand was motivated by the Italian Communists’s preparedness to overcome the isolation from the working masses under the Mussolini era. The possibility of being part of a a post-Fascist democratic government appealed to the vast sections of militia belonging to the PCI who were under exile or in prison for more than two decades. Had the PCI not projected this alternative, it would have experienced further degeneration and faced desertion of its cadres, dropping into further isolation which would have made the task of eliminating an idea of Communist Party of Italy from the minds of its citizen much easier.

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