Democratic centralism was the Leninist-Bolshevik pyramidal model of internal organization in operation in all communist parties for most of the 20th century. Thus far, the question of whether it functioned consistently across the non-ruling parties has not been addressed explicitly or systematically. This article examines the implementation of this essential internal dynamic in a French and an Italian communist party federation in the early postwar period. Drawing on new personal testimonies from more than 50 informants, and inedita archival evidence, this analysis reveals not only similarities but also clear functional disparities between the two cases.

INTRODUCTION

The democratic centralist system of internal organization that was a defining feature of all communist parties until the early 1990s was modeled on that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), founded in 1921 as a vanguard of revolutionary socialism. “Democracy in discussion” required the direct and ongoing participation of all members in formal discussions, which were prescribed and micromanaged by the party apparatus in order to keep them “informed” and “focused.” “Unity in action” required a rigorous party discipline in the implementation of all majority decisions.1 So important an element was democratic centralism to functional communism that it would be logical to suppose that it operated with uniformity and consistency across the international communist movement, despite any differences there may have been in the internationalist dimensions of the non-ruling parties (Bracke, 2007, pp. 5–120; Sluga & Clavin, 2017). And yet, a comparative analysis of the formal workings of the system in a French and an Italian communist party federation in 1956 shows that while its structural elements were identical, there were nevertheless clear differences in the ways in which it was applied at these levels. This article addresses the nature of those differences, and the extents to which and ways in which they impacted policies, procedures, and observances at all levels of the regional party structures in question.

The implementation of democratic centralism in communist parties outside the Soviet Bloc post-1945 is a subject that, in and of itself, has been underresearched to date. This is despite the vast literature that exists on the French and Italian Communist Parties (PCF, PCI), which were the two largest and most important of these organizations (Guiat, 2003, pp. 1–32; Martelli, 1999). There has been a tendency to address the subject implicitly, often as an indicator of these parties' degree of allegiance to the Soviet Union. Marc Lazar, for example, states: “Until very recently, the French party barely made space for the expression of internal differences. … The PCF was far more subordinate than the PCI to the international communist movement” (Lazar, 1998, pp. 275–287). Much of the existing literature examines the question of democratic centralism in relation to the responses of political and geographical elites to macro issues and developments, and this is especially true of the comparative studies. While there are works that adopt a context specific and/or decentered approach to matters of functional communism, usually by way of a single-party study, when they address the subject at hand it is invariably as part of wider discussions (Blackmer & Tarrow, 1975, p. 6).

Nonetheless, many of the issues discussed in existing studies resonate with the findings of the current analysis and therefore serve to locate its findings within the broader interpretive framework.

George Ross, for example, describes the “unreformed undemocratic centralism” of the PCF in the postwar period as an inherent trait that undermined its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances: “Undemocratic centralism was an organizational legacy from the party's formative years. … Loyalty to the Soviet model was also built into the PCF,” and that loyalty, he continues, “often overdetermined party policies. The PCF's devotion to things Soviet began lessening somewhat after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the coming of ‘peaceful coexistence,’ but pro-Sovietism has remained strong in the modern period” (Ross, 1992, p. 45).

Sandro Bellassai examines the inherently hegemonic and therefore formative nature of “party life” in the PCI, that is, democratic centralism in its wider sense, and several of the themes he discusses emerge here as grounded theory. One of those themes is the institutional requirement during the 1950s of all members of the party to further their own politicization via the practice of “self-education.” A key element to this drive was the cultivation of an understanding among ordinary communists of political philosopher and founding member of the Communist Party of Italy (1921–26) Antonio Gramsci's neo-Marxist thought,2 (Judt, 1985, pp. 1012–1015; Forgacs 2005; Salamini, 2017) (although this effectively proved a “hard sell” vis-à-vis the large majority “orthodox” rank and file):3 “1952 saw the intensification of the campaign for individual study … to the extent that it became one of the fundamental strategic tracks … by creating little section libraries or ‘Angoli Gramsci’ (Gramscian ‘corners’) with a ‘consultant’ ready to give directions for reading” (Bellassi, 1999, p. 99; Gozzini & Martinelli, 1998, pp. 490–504).

However, those and similar works do not address explicitly the question of democratic centralism in action, nor that of its application across national boundaries, nor at a specific conjuncture, because that is not their remit.

The contribution of this article to the historiography is in making a detailed analysis of this fundamental indicator of communist party culture in two distinct but comparable organizations. In examining its formal application in real circumstances, as tested by real events, as recounted by qualified individuals, it considers the issue from new angles, thus from new perspectives, and to new reaches. And by focusing on a particular period in Cold War history that threw party discipline, solidarity and levels of critical awareness into sharp relief, it allows those key indicators to be analyzed with greater precision. On the basis of the findings, this article argues that the democratic centralism of the French case study was more centralist than democratic, whereas that of the Italian case study was as democratic as it was centralist.

RESEARCH DESIGN

Assessing the consistency of what is on prima facie evidence a blanket system calls for a comparative approach. Focusing attention on cases that are distanced from central points of authority, regulation, and administration, where potential inconsistencies in any system are more likely to occur, can prove particularly productive. The two organizations that serve as the historical case studies for this article are the PCF Var Federation (PCFFV; Parti communiste français, Fédération du Var), in the department of the same name, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region in southeastern France, and what was the PCI Federation of Gorizia (PCIFG; Partito comunista italiano federazione di Gorizia), in the province of the same name, in the former Venezia-Giulia region of northeastern Italy.4

The shipbuilding industry was central to the micro economies of both case locations in 1956. In the French case the hubs of this activity were the naval shipyards and port in the departmental capital Toulon, and the Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM) shipyards in the town of La Seyne-sur-Mer, 8 kilometers to the southwest. In the Italian case it was located in and around the Cantieri Riuniti dell'Adriatico (CRDA) shipyards in the town of Monfalcone, 25 kilometers southwest of the provincial capital of Gorizia.

The principal sources for this study were new personal testimonies from members/former members of the PCFFV and the PCIFG, that is, men and women who in 1956 had been engaged in party activity at various levels of those regional party structures. In order to maximize the reliability of the personal testimonies as historical accounts, they were triangulated with a wide range of local, regional, and national documentary evidence, including previously unseen examples.5

PARTY MEMBERSHIP: RECRUITMENT POLICIES AND MOTIVES FOR JOINING THE PARTY

The very definition of a party member had multiple implications for communist parties and their memberships. The original Leninist-Bolshevik definition of a vanguard party operating outside the law specified: (1) “A member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party is someone who accepting its program, works actively to accomplish its aims under the control and direction of the organs of the Party.” (2) “Expulsion of a member from the Party for conduct incompatible with the interests of the Party shall be decided by the Central Committee” (Lenin, 1904). So prescriptive and so exacting was communism as a political philosophy that it mandated that members of its organizations be totally and fully committed to its principles and objectives, and for all intents and purposes, those original stipulations provided the basis for the recruitment and monitoring policies of all communist parties for much of the postwar period. However, evidence from this study reveals that those stipulations were subject to considerable degrees of interpretation within the PCF and PCI during the 1950s.

Apart from the danger of political infiltration of the non-ruling parties by anti-communist elements post-1945, there was also the concern that some individuals joining them may not be sufficiently committed to the cause. This, it was considered, and especially in the PCF, could have only a detrimental effect on collective discipline and party morale. Individuals often became members of communist organizations from family tradition, or via a process of workplace politicization, but reasons could also be linked to political, economic, and social conditions; and in a postwar context, these were changing. Those who had joined or supported communist parties in the interwar period were usually of strong ideological convictions; those who had become communists as a result of World War II experiences also tended to be firm in their resolve.

Those who joined in the immediate or early postwar period could be “organic” recruits coming up from the French and Italian communist youth organizations Jeunesse Communiste (JC) and Federazione Giovenile Comunista Italiana (FGCI), but they could equally be individuals who had been swept along on the wave of admiration and gratitude infusing these societies at this time for the leading part the communists had played in the fight against fascism. That meant that the new recruits were not necessarily of the required timber, although this was considered to be less of an immediate problem in the PCI than in the PCF.

Then there was the question of intellectuals in the party—a classification that for our purposes included professionals and white-collar workers, as per the usage of the term in France and Italy at that time to differentiate between proletarian and non-proletarian elements. Although intellectuals were invaluable to the parties in terms of the ideological and therefore political kudos they brought with them—particularly in the case of prominent figures from academic and cultural milieux—they were nevertheless viewed with circumspection by cadres6 and party base alike. It was considered, especially in the PCF, that such individuals could never fully understand the proletarian struggle, and that they were therefore more likely to confuse the issues, thereby undermining the common cause, giving comfort to the “enemy.”

In a challenging and precarious postwar political climate and with the promise and early signs of improved socioeconomic conditions that represented all sorts of bourgeois ideological contamination (which was considered an existential threat to the PCF), preserving the integrity of party memberships was crucial. The concerns of indiscriminate recruitment were common to all communist parties operating in the Western Hemisphere at this time; however, evidence shows that they were interpreted and dealt with in very different ways in the PCF and PCI organizations at issue.

RECRUITMENT IN THE PCFFV

The recruitment policy of the PCFFV at this time seems to have been one of “they come to us.” Proselytizing was not its style, nor was it seen as an effective way to build the ranks. The thinking was that if an individual needed to be convinced to join the party, then she or he was not ready, or not predisposed to do so. Rather, it was the party that needed to be convinced of a potential member's suitability. This “orthodox” understanding of French communism was underscored by the Soviet-styled leadership of PCF General Secretary Maurice Thorez. Evidence from this study indicates that the PCFFV functioned in accordance with the national party strategy of recruiting strictly in its own image. The overriding objective seems to have been that of retaining the integrity and therefore the efficacy of the party.

Charles Galfré, former Resistance fighter, deputy editor of regional party organ Le Petit Varois la Marseillaise (LPVM) in Toulon in 1956, gave a typical account of this process: “When I joined the party I had to write out a CV and I was well and truly interrogated about my family's political ideas—who my friends were and so on—and I said that I had been against the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939)—and he marked all that down” (C. Galfré, personal communication, 30 January 2009).

Lifelong party militant Robert Gourvenec, a young shipyard worker in Toulon in the same period, gave a similar account: “Oh yes—they asked me extremely searching questions about my family background—whether I liked it or not—I personally didn't mind—but I was a bit—not shocked but—I mean it was like a police interrogation—if I hadn't agreed to that I couldn't have joined the party” (R. Gourvenec, personal communication, 28 July 2009).

The PCF was not only difficult to join, but the decision to become a communist was not made on a whim. Jeanine Bechet, a lifelong communist militant who in 1956 was a social worker in La Seyne, shares her thoughts on this issue: “You know—it's not easy being a communist—it's exposing yourself to a lot of criticism—and if our leaders make mistakes they judge us all” (J. Bechet, personal communication, 18 August 2009). The all-important step of becoming a card-carrying member of the PCF, known as “prendre sa carte,” was effectively the informed act of an already politicized individual, especially so in an increasingly hostile Cold War environment. This may help to explain the reluctance of comrades in the French context to question the party line (see below) and/or to leave the party once admitted to its ranks. Indeed, leaving the PCF was in many ways more difficult than joining it, and sometimes more difficult than remaining in it, and this was especially the case in close-knit communities. Informants spoke of it being akin to excommunication for Catholics, and therefore very much an action of last resort.

Another dilemma facing any French communist contemplating leaving the party was that of “where to go next?” These individuals were, by necessity, of strong left-wing principles. However, leaving the PCF did not imply an automatic transition to the French Socialist Party (SFIO).

The French Communists had made a definitive break from the Jean Jaurés reformist tradition in 1920 (Tiersky, 1974, pp. 13–15), when they quit the French Section of the Workers' International, or Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO), to join the Third International, thereby accepting subordination to the international communist movement. That course of action automatically generated accusations from the French political mainstream, and not least from the Socialists, of having betrayed the Republic (Greene, 1968, p. 23). That legacy persisted through the interwar and postwar decades. It was certainly palpable in the context of this research. In Italy on the other hand, and despite twists and turns along the way, more than any other factor that united the Socialists and Communists was the fact that for much of the 20th century both parties had had to contend with strong establishment forces (Lange, 1975, pp. 259–304; Furet, 1999, p. 418; Del Piero, 2003, pp. 539–540). Post-1945 this force presented in the form of the broad-church US-backed Christian Democrats, or Democrazia Cristiana (DC). From the data collected for this research, it can be said that the transition from the PCI to the Italian Socialist Party, or Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI), was the logical step for an individual who felt that his or her political convictions were no longer reflected in parties of radical change but in those that favored reform.7

The friction between the protagonists of the French Left after the war was particularly marked in La Seyne, where a highly successful Communist administration had been in power since 1947. (Although both the PCF and the PCI had been expelled from national government weeks before the introduction of the Marshall Plan in June 1948, that did not impact negatively on their political successes at regional and local levels.) The rivalry in the town between Socialists and Communists is illustrated by the following extract from an article written for one of the major regional right-wing daily newspapers, Provençale, by the secretary of the local SFIO Section and opposition councilor, Henry Midon. The Socialists had been hoping to regain their prewar majority in the municipality in the legislative elections of January 1956, but when those hopes were dashed, they had no option but to continue their anti-communist propaganda campaign in the local press, which, evidence shows, included working with any and all political tendencies. Here, Midon attacks the “New Popular Front” strategy, or formule populaire, which was a Moscow-backed initiative intended to rehabilitate the non-ruling parties, and the PCF in particular, in their national contexts after nearly a decade of political isolation: “As the PCF tries to make overtures to the Socialists, we won't forget that it continues to act as social democracy's implacable enemy, and events behind the iron curtain demonstrate that it is not just a question of principle; there, it translates to the imprisonment, deportation or execution of social democrats” (Midon, 1956, n.p.).

Jacques Brémond, a lifelong party activist, talked of the fraught relations between Communist and Socialist councilors: “They were anti-communist plain and simple. … We always wanted unity on the left—we always fight for this on the principle that unity is strength. … Midon ran a fierce campaign against the Communists at the council in La Seyne … and Albert Lamarque [a well-known and outspoken anti-Communist]—he was poisonous” (J. Brémond, personal communication, 15 October, 2008; and Lamarque Jean Albert, 2019).

The fact that a senior Socialist cadre, along with a number of his associates, regularly wrote for center-right and right-wing publications as well as for the Socialist regional daily newspaper République, is eloquent in itself. Also eloquent is the fact that the content of the articles featured in République concerning the PCF was no less scathing than it was in the right-wing publications. In the French context, the discrimination against communists on the part of traditional authority included that of their “brothers in arms,” whereas in the Italian context it emanated from what remained of the political right (the Italian Social Movement, or Movimento Sociale Italiano [MSI], but mostly from the right wing of the broad-church majority DC), which in practical terms incorporated much of the State apparatus.8

RECRUITMENT IN THE PCIFG

The PCIFG's recruitment policy appears to have been very different from that of the PCFFV—one of “we go to them.” Proselytizing was inscribed in its raison d'être. Its guiding principle seems to have been that of the PCI's longest-serving leader Palmiro Togliatti, namely, the creation of a mass membership around a new “democratic” political identity, as opposed to maintaining a selective membership around an existing version at all costs. And the vehicle for this endeavor was his “new party,” or partito nuovo (Urban, 1986, pp. 184–224). On his return from the Soviet Union in 1944, the Italian party leader had announced that postwar Italian communism would be one more suited to its immediate institutional context and the socioeconomic conditions of that society, in other words, one that was more likely to be successful. This had been in line with contemporary Soviet foreign policy (however, it is generally believed that it was equally in keeping with his vision of a modern Italy). The Italian party leader had therefore set about building his partito nuovo predicated on bringing about a much-needed national cohesion around a progressive collective awareness within a communist-led left-wing hegemony. The question of national identity post-1947 had been no less important for the Julian communists, who had chosen to become Italian communists after a failed campaign (August 1945 to February 1947) to annex Venezia-Giulia to Marshall Tito's new Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia (Ruzicic-Kessler, 2014; Sluga, 2001).

To be sure, the potential danger of infiltration by anti-communist elements at this time was the same in the PCI as in its sister party, the PCF—in fact, more so in many ways because of Italy's continuity with fascism due to a less than rigorous purging of Far Right sympathizers from its State institutions. And in the PCIFG it was a particularly pertinent concern given that organzation's sensitive border location. However, owing to the historical tendency in the region toward political binarism, a visceral anti-communism that persisted thereabouts after the war was countered by a commensurate anti-fascism that gravitated toward and found a natural home in the PCI. Nothing was going to stand in the way of the Gorizian communists' pursuing a proactive recruitment policy that would consolidate their party and therefore its political effectiveness in the region. As they saw things, the democratic centralism of the party would in any case quickly identify “undesirable” elements (see below), just as it would make comrades out of bona fide raw recruits.

Even the Stalinists (those who retained a Stalinist perspective), who as in the French party comprised the vast majority of the national and regional membership party at this time, supported that strategy. Normally this contingent would have taken issue with inclusive/indiscriminate recruitment practices that could threaten the integrity and therefore efficacy of the party.9 All of the Gorizian comrades understood the need to build their organization by appealing to as large a constituency as possible in order for it to move from majority opposition vis-à-vis the incumbent DC to the position of first political force in the region. Renato Papais was a former partisan and longstanding communist activist who during his career had fufilled cadre roles in the PCI and its successor party, the Democratic Party or Partito Democratico (PD), and in the party affiliated trade union, the Confederazione generale italiana del lavoro (CGIL) (and at the time of interview he still worked for this organization). He had been a Stalinist back then, but he had also been in favor of a proactive and inclusive recruitment policy. Here he explains how it worked: “They gave you a form to fill in and two referees had to sign it—and it was like that for many years.” But on the form were there questions about your family? “No—only about yourself—whether you'd ever been a fascist—what you did in the war—your own history basically” (R. Papais, personal communication, 8 October 2009). This and similar evidence supports the idea that in many ways the PCIFG, operating in line with the principles and values of the national party, effectively functioned according to a Gramscian worldview that placed the subject at the center of the political equation.

A key route into the Italian party in the postwar period was via the CGIL. It was in fact communist-led in that most of its senior officials were also party members, although unlike its French equivalent, the General Confederation of Labour, or Confédération générale du travail (CGT), its leadership also included socialists (from the Pietro Nenni's PSI, not Giuseppe Saragat's PSDI, which was on the right of the Socialist movement). In Italy, a US-backed government attack on the CGIL's continued dominance over internal commissions in the factories had taken particular effect in Monfalcone in 1955. Nonetheless, the communist presence and influence in the CRDA shipyards, and therefore in the community, was still a vital asset to the PCIFG (M. Puppini, 2008, 95–115). Shipbuilding and its feeder industries were key to both the French and Italian local economies, and there were high levels of unionization within those workforces, as would be expected in this epoch. Both the CGIL and the CGT were open to non-communists (although naturally those subscribers tended to be from the non-communist left or the center ground of national politics), and because these communist-affiliated organizations were the most effective in defending workers' interests, their memberships were large. However, evidence strongly suggests that the Italian organization had been the more “hands-on” of the two. A key function of the French model seems to have been in serving as a flagship of international socialism in that its officials led by example and, in this sense, drew people to the party by “association”; whereas the Italian model seems to have functioned in a veritable capillary manner, with union representatives reaching and catering to all levels of its membership base in the daily execution of their duties.

Although the leadership of the CGIL was majority communist, for reasons of legitimacy and credibility it was officially independent of the PCI, as were most of its other flanking or representative organizations (except for the Italian Communist Youth Federation, or Federazione Giovanile Comunista [FGCI]).10 Papais explains that apart from other considerations, this factor facilitated the recruitment process. His account, as certain others in both samples, contains tense shifts that are common to spontaneous speech but which can denote such factors as a continued identification with a past reality or practice:

It's not in our interests that it's [the CGIL] part of us [the PCIFG/PD] because being autonomous means that people who don't necessarily want a card can be “in the fold”—for those who want to work with us—like the young ones—the door is open. … For example, if we were all going for a trip—or something like that—it gave us [union/party cadres and militants] the opportunity to talk to them [non-members]—explain things—win them over in a reasonable manner (R. Papais, personal communication, 8 October 2009).

He goes on to explain that although the CGIL was not a para-PCI organization as such, in that it included a non-communist element in its leadership body, it nevertheless served as an important vehicle of party activity: “The ‘attivita’ [political action] wasn't really autonomous—all the literature was produced in the sections” (R. Papais, personal communication, 8 October 2009).

THE REGULATORY FUNCTION OF DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM

The most widely recognized function of democratic centralism was as a regulatory mechanism. It was by definition a participatory system. Revolutionary vanguard parties were not representative bodies but, rather, entities made up of professional revolutionaries leading a politically informed and permanently engaged proletariat in its historic role of transforming society.11 The democratic centralist system was also an effective way for the party apparatus to monitor members' allegiance and commitment to the cause.

The democratic element of the system required the direct, informed, and constant engagement of all party members in formal discussions at cell, section, and federation levels in order for those discussions to have political legitimacy.12 For this to occur, members were required not only to attend all meetings and briefings but also to fulfill their responsibility to read the party press, other communist publications, and party and party-affiliated trade union literature. Mid-level cadres were unsalaried secretaries of cells and sections who had undergone formal training programs organized by the party apparatus. They would in turn organize and/or deliver theoretical and practical political training for trusted militants.

The centralist element of the system required first that all party members be cognizant of and fully grasp national party positions, strategies, and policies concerning national and international issues of the day (which were essentially those of Soviet foreign policy, especially in the case of the French party), and second that they engage in a permanent process of furthering them in immediate contexts. Hence all party members were, in theory, “militants”; however, in practice some were more active than others, for a range of reasons.

Regional and local issues would be discussed in sections and federations, then resolutions regarding them would normally be made at this level in accordance with national party programs. Sometimes these issues would be deliberated at the federation congresses. Regarding regional issues of a wider importance, motions proposed at meetings in sections or at federation levels would be passed-up through the organizational structures and procedures to the national party levels. The party line on national and international issues was sanctioned at the national party congresses. Papais describes the processes involved in the PCI as in all other communist parties:

First the party at national level sends the debates down to regional level so that they can be discussed—then on the basis of the regional consultations—these would be modified and sanctioned at national level—at the Congresses there are debates about this that last five days or more—also in the union it works like that today—the party line gets decided—confirmed—modified—sometimes new objectives set (R. Papais, personal communication, 13 August 2009).

Armand Conan, lifelong communist militant and communist mayor of Carqueiranne, just outside Toulon, cites the example of the PCF to describe the standard procedure in all communist parties as regards the incorporation of international issues into regional agendas:

We used to get “l'Huma” [l'Humanité] on Wednesday mornings as party cadres at the local level—in l'Huma were a summary of the minutes of the [PCF] Bureau Politique meeting—we convened our sections and cells and we said: “Have you seen what's in l'Huma? Now we must put this into action”—and the summary of the resolutions made by the BP was read-out locally by all local and regional party cadres. … In other words individual input into the decision making process was next to nothing—we acted on the decision that came down from the top—democratic centralism (A. Conan, personal communication, 22 May 2010).

It was clear from the evidence that democratic centralism was viewed positively by both regional party memberships at that time. It was considered fundamental to party discipline and therefore to the political viability of the parties, whereas other parties were perceived to be lacking in theoretical and/or organizational rigor and therefore constantly racked with factions. Some of the French informants, however, were critical of democratic centralism in retrospect, and they were not always from the small minority that at one point or another left the party. A mid-level cadre in Toulon in 1956, who remains a member of the party, talks of how things were. The juxtaposition of personal pronouns in this testimony may be indicative of a certain ambivalence as to where the informant stands on this issue: “There were such levels of devotion. … They didn't discuss enough … they accepted—we used to go along to find out what we had to do and what not to do—they didn't question things.” Which party members do you mean—those at the base of the party or cadres? “The cadres—they didn't ask questions—but the base didn't either for that matter” (Interviewee preferred to remain anonymous; personal communication, 16 October 2008). For others, such as Dr. George Richard from La Seyne, who was a young party militant in 1956, the restrictive nature of the democratic centralist system was a major factor in his decision to defect years later: “Democratic centralism is one of the reasons I left the party in '81” (G. Richard, personal communication, 12 May 2010).

René Dauban is part of the extended sample for the French study as he was not a party member but a lifelong communist sympathizer and Christian militant who is well known and trusted within this communist community. As one of the informants stated half-jokingly: “He was our conscience” (R. Merle, personal communication, 20 May 2010). In 1956 Dauban was a master electrician in the FCM shipyards in La Seyne; he was also the departmental president of the Peace Movement. The reason he cites for not joining the party was what he saw as its draconian discipline and censorship that would have prevented his maintaining independence of thought and expression. He explains that a close friend and senior party cadre once said to him in confidence: “Don't join whatever you do because you enter a mold.” He continues: “Not being a member allowed me to say what I wanted—and in fact what I had to say about Hungary a party member could never have said—I said to them: ‘How can you protest about Algeria and Suez and not for Hungary?!’” (R. Dauban, personal communication, 29 July 2009).

Nonetheless, the majority of the French informants retains an appreciation of the effectiveness of democratic centralism. Giovanni Sini, from La Garde on the outskirts of Toulon, was a lifelong party activist who in 1956 worked in the naval shipyards. Here he comments succinctly on the system: “Yes—it was disciplined—it had to be—that's how you get things done” (G. Sini, personal communication, 3 August 2009). The tense shift there gives the impression of a continuing understanding of and identification with this style of internal organization, which is equally conveyed in Conan's account of how party culture changed over time:

Slowly—by the 70s/80s—the decisions coming down from the BP [Bureau Politique] were not contested but they were—discussed—so people at the base would be able to say something and then there was “but”—“why” etc. … So what was happening was that individual opinions were getting more important than they had been. … It's more difficult now for a communist to act—before we knew what we had to do—we were told—now it's: “Oh my”!—maybe it's not like that—what do you think?” Now people can say “no”—democratic centralism at least meant that we were all pulling in the same direction—now in order for that to happen we have to talk it all through—now we talk so much there isn't any action (A. Conan, personal communication, 22 May 2010).

As previously discussed, joining the PCF was not a simple procedure, nor was it without consequences. That would imply that those individuals who had chosen to do so, and who had progressed through the exigent recruitment process, would be aware of what to expect once admitted. Be that as it may, evidence from this study suggests that those who subsequently experienced misgivings regarding the rigidity of the democratic centralist system, or those who deemed it to be less appropriate as time went on, either reconciled their doubts according to a particular collective consciousness, or quit the party altogether (see Galfré below).

On the other hand, the Italian informants' testimonies convey the idea of a party culture that was indeed more open, more flexible. Alessandro Visintin was a longstanding party militant from Ronchi, on the outskirts of Monfalcone, who in 1956 was secretary of the local FGCI section. He provided a typical account: So there was free discussion in the party in general? At section meetings for example? “Not only free but lively debate! I used to participate in the Federation Committee in Gorizia where everyone would meet up—all the Secretaries of the Sections—100–200 people—we used to stay until 2–3 a.m.—there were arguments put forward and a secret vote on each” (A. Visintin, personal communication, 15 June 2010).

Dino Zanuttin was born in Paris to Italian parents who had emigrated to France before the war for economic reasons, only to be repatriated during World War II. At the age of 18, he had joined the ranks of Italian partisans fighting the War of Liberation against the fascists. He described his brief experience of the PCF youth organization Jeunesse Communiste (JC): “From my little experience in the JC I'd say that they were dogmatic, closed minded—when I arrived in Italy I saw that there was a freedom in the PCI—in regard to new ideas or cultures—even though there were rules—which there were of course—but there was an open-mindedness too” (D. Zanuttin, personal communication, 17 June 2010).

Luisa Franco is part of the extended sample for this study—the daughter of Aldo Franco, who in 1956 was a mid-level PCIFG cadre in Monfalcone. From a close association with party life, she described things from a slightly different angle: “The party was different then—you could put your point of view—but the party line was the party line—they told you that you had to follow it because on the other side you had America that was supporting all the anti-communist activity because it was in their interests to break the front—that was the climate” (L. Franco, personal interview, 15 June 2010).

What is conveyed in Franco's account is that even when there were clear guidelines given by senior cadres as to how members should respond to given issues, they were based on practical considerations. Also conveyed is that this modus operandi was understood and accepted by the regional party membership as a necessary expedient. In fact, an interesting tendency highlighted in the evidence is an apparent sense of responsibility felt by mid-level cadres in the Italian study, leading to a degree of self-censorship in mediating difficult issues vis-à-vis the regional party membership, whereas no such tendency was alluded to by the French informants. Former secretaries of cells and sections in the PCIFG speak about the concerns of relaying information to ordinary party members (those who did not fulfill an official or semi-official role within the party) and responding to their questions. Silvano Morsolin, a former partisan, shipyard worker, and mid-level cadre in the PCIFG in 1956, explained: “For “politicos” it was different—but for someone like me who worked in the shipyards but had to speak about politics—because we did speak about politics—it wasn't easy—they knew you were a cadre—a bit higher up than they were so you had to have the answers—they'd ask you for your opinion—your advice” (S. Morsolin, personal communication, 1 December 2009).

Visintin makes a similar point in regard to cadres having to be more considered than the rank and file in what they said and how they reacted to events: “In the shipyards and in the party you have to be cautious in your responses—moderate—reasonable” (A. Visintin, personal communication, 15 June 2010).

And although Papais was an advocate of discussion and debate within the party, he also stipulated that not all matters were for general consumption: “Some things were discussed at the level of cadres—some subjects are not to be discussed openly because you just created concern amongst the members—demoralize them—we had to know when to draw the line. … Cadres are not there to spread their own opinions” (R. Papais, personal communication, 13 August 2009).

The overall impression is that the circumspect approach adopted by the former mid-level cadres in the PCIFG as regards imparting information, and in handling difficult questions put by the party membership, stemmed from a sense of collective responsibility rather than institutional reticence. The fact that no such concern was mentioned by their French counterparts may indicate that it was simply not an issue or, perhaps, that the democratic centralism of the PCF left no room for interpretation or maneuver on the part of individual actors.

As previously discussed, joining the PCI was a relatively straightforward process, although it could have adverse consequences in terms of discrimination in the workplace, in the system, and in the wider community. It would therefore be logical to suppose that individuals who chose to join the Italian party in good faith would also have chosen to comply with its democratic centralist system, the nature of which was, after all, no secret. According to the same logic, in the event of a change of heart, a party member wishing to leave the party could have done so, because as we have seen, this was not as problematic a proposition in the PCI as it was in the PCF. “The Socialists were our first allies” [referring to members of the PSI, not the PSDI], confirms Silvano Bacicchi, former vice commander in the Natisone Garibaldi division in World War II Resistance, who would go on to become Communist Regional Councilor, a member of the PCI Central Committee Plenum, and State Senator (S. Bacicchi, personal communication, 12 December 2009).

Levels of participation in party life were a key indicator of commitment to the cause. Francisque Luminet is a longstanding party member and former engineer in the naval shipyards in Toulon. He talked of the process of triage, or “sifting” that occurred automatically in the PCF as a result of a policy of monitoring members' attendance at and participation in party meetings and briefings, along with their fulfillment of associated responsibilities (see below). Were there members who had joined the party for pragmatic purposes, for example because La Seyne had a Communist council at the time and they thought that it would be in their interests? “There was democratic centralism back then—but yes—there were such people in the party—however, the triage of the party meant that they were soon found out—they didn't stay long” (F. Luminet, personal communication, 15 October 2008). The same principle is mentioned by Papais in relation to the PCI: Were members of the party all engaged to the same degree? “Yes—if not they would have gone on the list of ‘incompatibles’—the party would have found out—or the union for that matter” (R. Papais, personal communication, 18 June 2010). He explained that participation in meetings was also monitored:

You could make a point that was contrary to the party line—it could be voted on—but then you had to go with the majority—if you kept on about it you were basically marking yourself out as “incompatible”13—you could raise a point but not create dissent—that's one of the ways you identify a false member. Was anyone ever expelled from the Party to your knowledge? “Provvedamenti Disciplinari?” Yes—it was rare but it did happen … we had those cases (R. Papais, personal communication, 18 June 2010).

THE FORMATIVE FUNCTION OF DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM

However, democratic centralism was much more than a regulatory system. Its no less deterministic holistic function implemented via “the party school” constituted in itself a consensus-making mechanism. It functioned as an engine, or rather, as a vital organ, sustaining party culture on a daily basis. It informed, reinforced, and drove forward all members' commitment to and constant engagement in the collective struggle. Apart from attending meetings and briefings, reading party and party-affiliated trade union literature, and keeping abreast of party strategies and policies on economic and political issues, ordinary members were expected to carry out party-related activities on a regular basis. This was ironic given that members of these case communities, many of whom had physically demanding occupations, had not yet attained a 40-hour week and yet were required to contribute to the life of the party in their “spare” time. Those requirements included fundraising; various types of party-related social events; distributing the party press, literature, propaganda, usually at weekends and often on Sunday mornings; and family members of card-carrying communists, as and when appropriate, be involved in these activities. The requirements also included participating in industrial action, demonstrations, marches, and rallies as necessary, and male members were required by the party Statute to protect party premises as instructed in times of civil unrest. Democratic centralism in its wider sense was the practical expression and implementation of a worldview.

The assiduity required of members by the parties was similar in both cases. In a shared interview Madame Meunier, whose husband was a party militant and mid-level cadre in La Seyne in 1956, and Josette Vincent, senior party cadre and deputy mayor in the Communist administration, talked of that time, Madame Meunier: “I hardly saw my husband—no I'm serious—he used to work all day then go to party meetings—sometimes he'd come home at 1-2-3 in the morning and he'd have to get up for work at 5!” Josette Vincent: “Yes—you know there were marriages that broke up for that reason—the husbands didn't recognize their children!” (J. Vincent and Madame Meunier, personal communication, 13 October 2008). These testimonies are a stark reminder of an era in which political ideologies informed the daily lives and actions of millions of people. Another insight into the family life of a communist at that time is provided here by Signora Visintin, the wife of Alessandro Visintin, from Ronchi: You must have seen little of your husband in those days, Signora? “That's right—he was always out! But it's a passion—it doesn't hurt the family—I didn't grumble—he could have been going out womanizing! and it was for us—you have to fight in life—things don't just come like that” (Interviewee's emphasis) (Sig.ra. Visintin, personal communication, 15 June 2010).

However, although the level of assiduity demanded from members was similar in both federations, the ways in which it was imposed were very different. Police intelligence reports indicate that the PCFFV was exacting in this respect. It should be noted that in the French context these documents are viewed as relatively reliable sources due to their bearing on national security. On seeing the report, Madame Bechet remarked: “In a way it reassures me because the RG [Renseignements généraux, or Central Directorate of General Intelligence] is a serious organization—it wouldn't have been in its interests to misinterpret things—and I know the type of thing we talked about in the cells and sections and it wasn't anything the RG shouldn't hear—people often used to think we were plotting but we weren't!” (J. Bechet, personal communication, 20 October 2009).

The following report on a PCFFV meeting held days before demonstrates that in an inauspicious postwar political context, maintaining party discipline was as important to the PCFFV cadres in Toulon as it was to those in Paris:

Toulon Police Headquarters

Information:

We only need to take our eyes off the ball for a moment and we'll lose our advantage. … We'll look weak in everyone's eyes. … Too many comrades count on the force of the militants to do their job, they forget that they are communists too. … If this situation continues, it will end in decadence (Information, 17 February 1956).

A similar source reports on a subsequent meeting, this time berating the militants for their lack of commitment:

Toulon Police Headquarters

Information:

Senior cadres deplore the lack of effort on the part of militants. They accuse them of being slaves to capitalism “doing overtime instead of consecrating their free time to the life of the party”

(Information, 6 April 1956).

As usual, this example of authoritarian, or dirigiste, leadership in the PCFFV contrasts with what seems to have been a very different culture in the PCIFG. When shown the above document, Papais responded: “This is extremism! That won't get new recruits—and it'll reduce the numbers you have got—that way if a worker feels the need to do overtime—he won't join the party—or the union.” … He continues, describing the thinking behind the PCI/DP: “We've always been ‘open’—like we are now—you can't go against the current—you have to get people on your side” (R. Papais, personal communication, 17 December 2009).

REACTOR

The Soviet interventions in the Hungarian Revolution between 23 October and 10 November 1956 brought the differences between the democratic centralism of the PCFFV and the PCIFG to the fore, exposing in the process striking differences in party culture. The vast majority of communists in both federations responded with instinctive and vehement support for the Soviet actions. They saw the interventions as a legitimate and necessary response to a Western-backed counterrevolution in a Socialist State. That was also the position of the national parties.

In the PCFFV the vast majority of the regional party membership appears to have taken that view, with the exception of a small number of intellectuals who decided to quit the party in protest (see Galfré below). It seems that any doubts there may have been in the minds of comrades as regards the interventions were quickly processed to fit a collective understanding of events. That response was based on an inherent trust in the party system, but also on a commensurate mistrust of the political establishment, which was only reinforced by its vitriolic response to the situation. As important to note, however, is that in this organization, any other position was in any case proscribed and would have resulted in a member's being instantly expelled from the party.

Meanwhile, in the PCIFG, the clear majority of the comrades also assumed an immediate and unequivocal pro-Soviet stance, and for the same reasons as their French counterparts. Nonetheless, there was a relatively small but vocal minority that was as strongly opposed to the interventions, and that group was the regional party leadership itself (the PCIFG Executive Committee and the majority of the Federation Committee), along with the “progressive” element within the regional party membership. What is all-important to note in this case, however, is that (a) it was precisely the nature of democratic centralism in operation in that organization that permitted these opposing stances at the regional level, (b) it would be that same internal dynamic that mediated and duly resolved them at this level, and (c) it was the democratic centralism of the national party apparatus that ultimately “normalized” the situation in a deliberate and reasonable manner.

UPHOLDING THE PARTY LINE, OR NOT

In the PCFFV

The pro-Soviet stance of the PCF vis-à-vis the interventions was uncompromising, and it had the dual purpose of reassuring a potentially perplexed and disoriented party membership at a time of crisis, and deflecting the attacks from the mainstream media being leveled at the Soviet Union and by extension communists everywhere. That version of events stressed the reactionary nature of the situation unfolding in Budapest, and therefore the necessity of Moscow's military response in compliance with the Warsaw Pact. At the same time, it diverted attention (a) to the neo-fascist threat in Europe as witnessed in the anti-communist backlash taking place at that moment in many Western European cities and (b) to what it presented as the continuing imperialistic exploits of former colonizing powers and their allies in North Africa. The PCF line was communicated in the party press, in party-affiliated publications, in all party/CGT literature, as well as in formal discussions and briefings within its component organizations across its national structure. Therefore, the PCFFV's responses to the Soviet interventions were automatically those of the national party, and coverage of them in the regional party organ (LPVM) reflected that of its parent publication (l'Humanité):

TENSION EVER-PRESENT IN NORTH AFRICA …

WHIPPED-UP BY COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY FORCES

UPRISING AVOIDED IN BUDAPEST

Newly instated President Imre Nagy calls on Soviet troops to intervene and fight alongside workers and the people. (“La tension subsiste,” LPVM, 25 October 1956, p. 1)

VIOLENT COMBAT AND DEADLY BOMBING RAID ON PORT-SAID,

WHICH REFUSES TO SUBMIT

MOSCOW SENDS A SOLEMN MESSAGE TO LONDON, PARIS AND TEL AVIV TO STOP THE ATTACK THAT COULD ESCALATE TO WORLD WAR III. (“Violents combats,” LPVM, 6 November 1956, p. 1)

While the national and consequently the regional party press maintained a strong and unwavering line on the legitimacy of the Soviet interventions in Hungary, it seems that no specific political action was taken at the local or regional level in defense of that stance. Diversionary tactics were the order of the day. Other than reiterating the party line in the regional party press, in formal discussions at cell, section, and federation levels, and in public declarations, no evidence was found to suggest that the PCFFV organized demonstrations regarding the issue in La Seyne or Toulon. And that state of affairs was substantiated by the informants.

Furthermore, the majority of the regional party membership had apparently seen no anomaly in this. Although outraged at what they perceived as a CIA-agitated reactionary coup in the Eastern Bloc, and at the political mainstream's cynical exploitation of the situation for its own ends, they understood that for the non-ruling communist parties, entering into a “tit for tat” situation in immediate contexts would serve no useful purpose. They also understood this type of macro event as being the domain and prerogative of the PCF leadership, and they were happy to take their lead at that point from the party organization.

Brémond recalled the thinking among his comrades in the naval shipyards in Toulon that fall, talking of Stalin as though he were still alive at that point, as did many of the informants in both case communities: “We believed in Stalin—and it has to be said that Hungary had been on the side of the fascists during the war. … For the majority of the workers these events were non-events—the workers weren't bothered about Budapest—they trusted the party cadres” (Brémond, personal communication, 15 October 2008).

Apart from the statutory state of alert directive issued by the regional party leadership as regards protecting party premises, it seems to have been “business as usual” in the PCFFV at this time, as can be seen in the following police report concerning the party's opposition to the war in Algeria:

The Var Federation has printed 10,000 tracts entitled “Stop the War! It's the Hour of Unity and Action!”—reproducing the declaration of the Central Committee against the Franco-British action in Egypt. All day yesterday, 1st November, PC militants distributed a large number of these tracts, for the most part into private letter boxes (Sûreté Nationale, 2 November 1956).

Its ongoing program, which was that of the national party, included opposing German rearmament and the war in Algeria, promoting the formule populaire, addressing the issue of living standards, and continuing to present Khrushchev's departures from Soviet orthodoxy as announced at the XX Congress of the CPSU in as positive a light as possible. This is illustrated in an extract below from a typical Council notice issued two days after the second, more decisive Soviet intervention in Hungary, when its troops and tanks returned to Budapest and all major cities across the country to crush the revolution. At a moment when the world's media was focused on those dramatic events, they were ignored in this document:

Progress report on our mandate

The government is violating the promises it made, betraying the expressed will of the people for:

  • Peace in Algeria

  • Improved living standards for workers

  • International détente

  • Respect for democratic freedoms

Explains MP and Mayor of La Seyne

TOUSSAINT MERLE

Communists – Socialists – Republicans – Unite!

(“Compte rendue de Mandat,” La Seyne, 9 November 1956)

The PCF/PCFFV's policy of playing down the Soviet interventions at the level of local response had the desired effect of refocusing the party faithful on the less “problematic” stock issues of the day, of “distancing” the events in Hungary, thus avoiding unnecessary confrontations with anti-Soviet protestors. Maintaining the cohesion of the national party membership and deflecting the barrage of criticism from the political mainstream were paramount at this time.

The PCFFV cadres upheld the party line to the letter, although evidence strongly suggests that far as the regional party membership was concerned, this was essentially preaching to the converted. The Cold War context of the day cannot be overstated, and it inevitably shaped opinions. For the vast majority of the comrades, the party version of events was the only one that made sense. Brémond provided a typical account: “The anti-communists were calling for the end of Communism—taking advantage of the situation—yes—and all of this made the militants even more loyal … and it might have escalated to other states wanting autonomy—snowball—and we had a big problem of our own in France—Algeria” (Brémond, personal communication, 15 October 2008).

For other comrades, the party line served as a moral and political compass at a difficult moment. Sini remembers that time: “We didn't have TVs back then—we used to go to cafés that had one—or to someone's house—we had radios—I remember hearing about the Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest—but we were on the side of the Soviet Union” (G. Sini, personal communication, 3 August 2009). A slightly different perspective on events is provided by Maurice Oustrières, former partisan, longstanding party militant who in 1956 was a journalist in the La Seyne office of LPVM. He recalled the party's handling of the matter, and what is communicated in his testimony is the sense that any doubts there may have been at that moment, ultimately merged into a consensus:

Well it was more of an “information exercise” than a discussion. … They said it was a counter-revolution—and that the Horthyists had taken advantage—that's what we were told anyway. … We had the right to a special assembly because we were journalists and they told us that the demonstrations in Budapest had been utterly contemptible—there was a member of the Central Committee there—when there were assemblies of this type there was always a member of the CC there—and everyone ended-up agreeing that it had been a serious deviation from the spirit of communism. … There was such hope in the Soviet Union—and it was so far off—there wasn't really any proof—so we believed the PCF version of events. (M. Oustrières, personal communication, 4 October 2008).

The only informant to have opposed the interventions that fall,14 contravening the party line and therefore the democratic centralist system, was Galfré, who as previously stated was deputy editor of LPVM in Toulon. After writing a letter of protest to the Var Federation Committee, with great reluctance, he resigned from his post, knowing that his stance on the issue made his position untenable. He was offered the position of deputy editor of the socialist daily newspaper République, which after much deliberation he accepted: “It was hard because there were anti-communists on that paper and my reputation was as a communist—and have you read my articles for LPVM?!” (C. Galfré, personal communication, 30 January, 2009). However, he would remain in his new post for eight years, going on to become chief editor of Var Matin (1965–83) and correspondent for Le Monde (1964–83). He would not, at any point however, join the SFIO.

His defection from the party was a cause célèbre within both the communist and the wider community for months and indeed years after the events, and it has remained a key moment in PCFFV history. At the time it was an extremely distressing experience for Galfré, striking at the heart of his core beliefs, adversely affecting his personal and professional relations with comrades, many of whom he had fought alongside in the Resistance. However, those relations were in due course repaired in the vast majority of cases. He was subsequently “rehabilitated” vis-à-vis his former communist community, although he never re-joined the party. He talks of that time:

When I left LPVM there were four other journalists who came with me—all former resistors—there were others who didn't agree (with the interventions) but didn't dare leave. … From one day to the next all my comrades turned their backs on me—they called me a traitor in the street—it was hard—I felt very alone—they talked about me—the cadres were awful to me—even to the point of skewing my Resistance record to minimize my contribution—all the documentation was in the hands of the PCF after the war—and when the case was looked into they said that their word was enough—I took them to court and won against all odds to be justly recognized—they were vindictive—they did all they could to thwart me. … It has to be said that the communists were great in the Resistance, but afterwards they put party interests before all else. (C. Galfré, personal communication, 30 January 2009).

In 2009, Galfré received public recognition for his part in World War II Resistance in the form of the National Order of Merit (Chevalier de l'ordre national du Mérite au titre des AC [1939–45].

In the PCIFG

The position of the PCI as regards the interventions was also pro-Soviet, although Togliatti equivocated over the course of the events, apportioning some of the blame to the Hungarian authorities for not having implemented timely reforms in step with Khrushchev's new line in politics, and for mishandling the resulting crisis. Nevertheless, that did not take away from his essential assessment that the situation was a “regrettable necessity” (Il giudizio, November 1956. p. 1). The PCI's stance had the same purpose as that of its sister party, the PCF, that is, to reassure the party membership at a difficult moment and divert attention to other issues. However, in the Italian case, it also served to reign in the reformist currents that existed within the PCI and CGIL leaderships—a situation that was for all intents and purposes precluded in the PCF due to its stricter implementation of democratic centralism. Coverage of the events in the national and therefore regional Italian party press was essentially identical to that of its French equivalent, and the extract below from the northern Italian edition of the PCI daily newspaper Unità published in Milan, conveys the tone adopted:

“ROAD CLOSED” TO COUNTER-REVOLUTION AND INTERNATIONAL PROVOCATIONS—SOVIET TROOPS INTERVENE IN HUNGARY TO STOP THE ANARCHY AND WHITE TERROR THAT STALK THE CITY …

ANGLO-FRENCH BOMB EGYPTIAN COAST—U.N. ORDERS CEASE-FIRE—(Le truppe sovietiche, L'Unità; Edizione dell'Italia settentrionale, 5 November 1956, p. 1)

Nonetheless, with regard to the implementation of the national party line in the PCIFG, the situation could not have been more different from that in the PCFFV. The PCIFG Federation Committee's flagrant opposition to the interventions and therefore also to the national party line resulted in a breach within the regional party membership between (a) the majority in favor of the national party leadership's pro-Soviet stance and therefore against that of the Federation Committee and (b) the minority in favor of the Federation Committee's condemnation of the Soviet actions and therefore against the national party leadership position.15 In this organization, it was the rank and file that upheld the national party line, while the regional party leadership adopted an official stance against it.

The PCIFG Executive Committee and like-minded comrades on the larger Federation Committee, along with the progressive element within the regional party membership, saw the Soviet interventions in Budapest as a direct contravention of Khrushchev's new direction in politics that had been announced to the world at the XX Congress in February that year. The progressive minority had been very much in favor of Khrushchev's departures, which included the possibilities of “national roads to socialism,” “peaceful coexistence of the socialist and capitalist systems,” and the “non-inevitability of war,” and there were historical reasons for that position. The PCIFG had suffered direct and adverse effects of certain Stalinist policies during the postwar period, the most important of which being the Tito-Stalin Split in 1948 (Puppini, 2003). This had caused an analogous split in the PCIFG between those who supported Tito and those who supported the Cominform Resolution that had excluded him from that forum for his “independent tendencies.” The ensuing exodus from the federation of the former contingent, especially in sections in and around the border town of Gorizia, severely compromised the morale and efficacy of the party in the region. On the other hand, as a result of Khrushchev's “thaw” in Soviet-Yugoslav since 1954, those comrades who had left the federation in 1948 were beginning to re-join the party. For ideological and pragmatic reasons, the progressives favored the more open, more contextual understanding of contemporary communism as articulated in Khrushchev's new program (and ostensibly in the raison d'être and objectives of Togliatti's Gramscian-informed partito nuovo). Therefore, as far as they were concerned, a development that threatened to reverse this trend in international politics, such as a reactionary response of the CPSU to calls for a situation of change in Eastern Europe, could easily foreshadow a return to Cold War impasse.

The secretary of the PCIFG was Silvino Poletto from nearby Pordenone, the son of a factory worker, a former factory worker himself who had quickly risen to the position of vice commander and then commander in the Garibaldi-Natisone Brigades during the Resistance. He provides context to the decisions taken by the regional party elite that fall: “In '56 the international scene was frenetic—we were trying to make sense of what was happening in Hungary—it was a flagrant contradiction of the principles of democracy—the Red Army intervenes in a popular democracy—to uphold that very democracy—it didn't make sense” (S. Poletto, personal communication, 15 June 2010).

On 1 November, the PCIFG Executive Committee, led by Poletto, published a manifesto condemning the interventions in direct contravention to the national party stance. The text expressed sympathy with the Hungarian workers and people in their bid to “break the suffocating and anti-democratic chains that are impeding the construction of socialism, put there by leaders who at this point are distanced from the masses and incapable of leading by example … in the new international climate of detente, and of peaceful coexistence” (Il Comitato Provinciale dei PCI di Gorizia, 1956, ‘Il Manifesto’). Poletto explains these actions: “When we did that manifesto—I mean—it wasn't an extraordinary act—it was natural—it came from our understanding of democracy in a party that was one of the most advanced—the PCI—Togliatti's “new party'” (S. Poletto, personal communication, 15 June 2010).

The manifesto was disseminated to all cells and sections across the federation structure, and displayed publicly in the streets of Gorizia and in towns across the province. While the PCIFG was the only communist organization in Italy to publish and distribute such a document independently, in that it was not sent to the national party leadership beforehand for comment, discussion, or sanction, there had been a number of petitions, open letters, motions, and declarations of communist protest on the part of communist student bodies, academics, and intellectuals in the capital and across the country.16 Those protests had been an expression of the reformist currents that existed within Italian communism, and which were a constant concern for the party leader in the postwar period. But then again, that differentiation of opinion was only to be expected in a party that according to its leader was predicated on a contextual understanding of Western European communism.

With regard to the situation in Gorizia, Etta Comar, who at the time was a member of the PCIFG Executive Committee, explains that although the manifesto was approved by the majority of the Federation Committee, and was therefore sanctioned, there were members of that same body who did not share that perspective: “No—I'm afraid that some of the others didn't understand what we were trying to do—they lagged behind essentially” (E. Comar, personal communication, 26 June 2010). Nor was the document well received across all sectors of the regional party membership because as we have seen, those at the base of the party supported the interventions. Papais provides a typical account of those reactions: “It was inconceivable—no one could believe it—that the Soviet Union would be the aggressors in the situation! … And anyway—we were Stalinist—the vast majority of compagni [comrades] around here refused to display Poletto's manifesto” (R. Papais, personal communication, 14 June 2010).

It was the very nature of the democratic centralism in operation in this organization that allowed those differing interpretations of communist militancy to coexist in the first place and find clear expression at a moment like this. When certain secretaries of sections, mostly in and around the industrial center of Monfalcone, refused to comply with the PCIFG directives to display the manifesto, it was that responsive understanding of democratic centralism that prompted the Executive and Federation Committees to “overlook” the matter. In that way, an unequivocal stance had been made by the regional party elite in opposing the interventions, while the voice of dissent within the regional party membership had been clearly heard. Italico Chiarion, a young intellectual, federation secretary of FGCI in Gorizia at the time, was a proponent of the manifesto. He talks of democratic centralism in operation within the PCIFG: “Democratic centralism was important and here it worked well—in fact you can see that in how the manifesto issue was handled” (I. Chiarion, personal communication, 14 December 2009).

Indeed, at times it is almost as though the French and Italian informants are describing two different systems. Would you say then that the PCI is more flexible than the PCF? “Yes—because the PCF would have thrown us out! Instead I remained in the Secretariat for years.” Did many people leave the party around here as a result of the interventions? “In the Province of Gorizia, no one left the party—but probably because of the autonomous position the regional party leadership took with the manifesto—they [the party membership] didn't feel as though they had to make a stand—any doubts they may have had about the interventions had been addressed in one way or another” (I. Chiarion, personal communication, 14 December 2019).

The PCIFG's interpretation of democratic centralism as evidenced in its handling of this episode was unorthodox by any standards. However, it appears to have been mirrored by the national party leadership's measured response to this case of regional indiscipline. The occasion chosen for the reckoning was the IV Federation Congress in December that year. Enrico Bonazzi, a known “hard-liner” and member of the PCI Central Committee, was dispatched from Rome to attend the proceedings. He had been instructed to extract a formal (if belated) “apology” from the senior cadres responsible for the manifesto. He was also instructed to oversee the removal of Poletto as a PCIFG secretary and his redeployment within the national party structure at senior cadre level, although not as a federation secretary. His first objective of obtaining an apology was realized, although it is described by Bonazzi himself in his subsequent report as having been “weak” (Bonazzi, 28 November 1956). His second objective was rendered impossible when the vast majority of the regional party membership, Stalinists included, rallied to support their most senior cadre, reelecting him with near unanimity as federation secretary for another two years. Bonazzi was obliged to acquiesce to PCI protocol. And an all-important factor in this show of support for Poletto on the part of the rank and file had been a common link with the War of Liberation.

The Gorizian “heretics” were not subject to further punishment or disadvantage within the party—an outcome that would have been inconceivable in the French party. All of the prime movers in the Gorizian manifesto affair went on to have long and distinguished careers in the PCI/PD.17 In the case of Poletto, he was made Cavaliere della Repubblica in 2012 for his role in World War II and service to Italian politics.

CONCLUSION

And so what does all of this tell us about the implementation of democratic centralism at local, regional, and national levels of the French and Italian communist parties in the postwar period? And what are the implications of these findings for understandings of the international communist movement at this time? Certainly, the questions of geopolitics and historical experience were highly pertinent to events in the PCFFV and PCIFG that fall, if in different ways.

In France there had been a centralizing political and cultural force in effect since the era of Absolutism, which found new forms of expression from the late 18th century onward. This had made for a cohesive nation-state, and a coherent national identity that spoke, in one way or another, to all of its citizens. The centrist, assimilatory, and highly stylized nature of the PCF in many ways reflected the wider institutional and societal environment in which it operated. Similarly, the events in the PCFFV that fall reflected a national party culture that was informed by truly “universal” precepts and therefore “immutable” positions. It was a party culture that did not entertain the notion of “regional specificities” and which disallowed “interpretations” of communist militancy. The PCF and the PCFFV acted as a single entity, closely in step with the interests of the international communist movement. As a consequence, the French case is marked with a consistency between (a) the national and regional party leaderships' stances and modus operandi and (b) an almost total consistency across the regional party membership's compliance with the national party line. For the party apparatus and the wider membership alike, “options” were few; and that state of affairs effectively rendered the situation infinitely more straightforward than it was in the Italian case.

Geopolitics and historical experience were important in Venezia-Giulia because for centuries it had been contested territory. However, it has to be said that all Italian regions were and are highly specific, each with its own history, conditions, and exigencies. Italy's late unification in 1870 and correspondingly protracted and geographically uneven industrialization processes contributed to a lack of unifying dynamic in that fledgling nation-state. Hence the relative importance in Italian society and politics of subnational identities and issues. In many ways, the relatively pluralistic, contextual, and experimental model of the PCI, particularly visible in the context of this study in its handling of the manifesto affair, was a corollary of its host society. By the same token, while the events in the PCIFG that fall were linked to a regional perspective, they were also informed by the national party culture adopted in 1947. The regional and national party leaderships' formal responses to the Soviet interventions may have been polar opposite, but the way in which the matter was ultimately resolved by both leadership groups' reaching a practical compromise, highlights a reciprocally dynamic approach.

The regional party leadership's response to the Soviet actions in Hungary that fall had demonstrated an inherent voluntarism, a readiness to intervene in the historical process. Its concession to the democratic centralism of the national party in providing a formal apology, however lackluster, for its actions after the fact had been made in the interests of national party unity at a difficult moment. The national party line on the interventions, reiterated in the disciplinary hearing, had been expedient. The national party leadership had been driven, as ever, by the need to maintain the party's “national-societal” identity in the immediate context without offending its “permanent” interests, that is, those of the international communist movement. That had never been an easy task, and 1956 had presented party leader Togliatti with challenge after challenge. His political agility or doppiezza (Blackmer, 1968, p. 45; Behan, 1996),18 arguably necessary at that time, was also visible in his address to the VIII Congress of the PCI in December that year, during which he spoke of the Soviet Union as “the first model of a socialist society” while reiterating nonetheless his own vision of a “polycentric” understanding of international communism.

Evidence from this study reveals that despite the international communist movement's being by definition an overarching organism with a defined system of thought and common objectives, the implementation of its essential system of internal organization, democratic centralism, differed considerably in the two major non-ruling parties as witnessed in its application at regional levels. An evaluation of its implementation both in day-to-day situations and in response to a mutually significant macro event point to there having been key differences in these two national parties' self-awareness and orientations as political entities, which informed their behaviors and practices in the early postwar period. A combination of detail-rich empirical evidence and a comparative perspective provides a picture of democratic centralism in action in the PCFFV and PCIFG that was, in fact, astonishingly different in key ways. It was unmistakably culture- and context-specific, that is, it was understood in relation to historical experience and applied according to political context. The findings of this study therefore support the theory that the PCF was of a predominantly internationalist orientation, taking its lead on key issues from Moscow, and applying as a result the strictest interpretation of democratic centralism across its national structure. They also support the theory that the PCI was essentially a “national-societal” organization seeking in the first instance to bring about a consensual transition to socialism in the immediate environment, and with a correspondingly more accommodating internal dynamic. This is despite the post-revisionist critiques of the early postwar PCI, according to which its leader, who to a much greater extent than his French counterpart determined party policy, was effectively much more of a Sovietophile than previously believed (Gundle, 1993; Abse, 2007; Aga-Rossi & Zaslavsky, 1997).

Historical case studies can be invaluable in interrogating the past in new ways. However, they do not necessarily yield universals. Their aim is to link empirical evidence to theoretical positions rather than link it by simple extension to wider populations. What is needed in communist studies at this stage is in fact more studies on more of the parties. Comparative studies would be particularly welcome in this regard given that any subject, issue, or phenomenon can be examined more effectively using one or more meaningful comparisons, and, importantly, they allow findings to be interpreted in meaningful contexts.

Notes

1.

The system was duly implemented across the international communist movement according to those principles, although in the 1970s and '80s it was modulated to differing extents in the non-ruling parties in line with the trend toward Eurocommunism. After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, those organizations either recalibrated their statutes according to a new world order, or reinvented themselves according to different forms of social democratic party.

2.

Gramsci's Marxist critique revisited the invisible institutional structures of the bourgeois state via which traditional power relations in society were maintained. It constituted a move away from economic determinism, expounding instead such concepts as “cultural hegemony,” “consent,” and “consciousness” (of the subject rather than of class).

3.

During the course of this research, the interviewees who mentioned Gramsci's ideas were invariably senior party cadres.

4.

This region is the present-day Friuli-Venezia Giulia. For reasons of convenience, the term “region” may be used here as a generic reference for the Province of Gorizia, although actual regions in Italy were set out in the Constitution of 1946 but not put into effect until the 1960s.

5.

Haig (2011, chs. 2 and 3) provided an in-depth discussion of all aspects of the methodological approaches used for the original research project, including conceptual and procedural questions surrounding the practice of oral and micro history.

6.

The term “party cadre” refers to professional revolutionaries who acted as role models to party members. Their responsibilities included training others, and in the event, assuming control as directed by the party apparatus in a revolutionary situation. They were unsalaried mid-level cadres at cell or section levels, or salaried senior cadres at federation levels.

7.

Rand Smith (2015, pp. 31–43, 77–101) provided a general overview of the strategic alliances between Socialists and Communists in France and Italy at macro levels.

8.

It should be remembered that in the summer of 1949, the Vatican excommunicated the PCI, its membership, and supporters, despite Togliatti having voted in March 1947 in favor of including the Lateran Pacts in the new constitution (Pollard, 2003, pp. 103–117).

9.

The “Stalinist” perspective that prevailed among all communist party memberships at this time, and especially among the rank and file who made up the clear majorities in these organizations, was due to the lasting aura of Marxist ideology, the contribution the USSR had made to the recent war effort, and the perception among communists of its achievements in creating socialist societies. This was despite the critique Khrushchev had made in February 1956 of his predecessor's leadership style and its consequences. In Venezia-Giulia, where many known communists and their sympathizers had been subject to a particularly targeted program of persecution during the Fascist era as part of Mussolini's Italianization program, a Stalinist mind-set was still very much in evidence.

10.

Both parties' main flanking organizations were the communist-affiliated trade unions CGIL and CGT; the women's associations Union Femmes Français (UFF) and Unione Donne Italiane (UDI); and the youth federations Mouvement Jeunes communistes de France (JC) and the FGCI. However, in the postwar period the veterans' associations Association des Anciens Combattants de la Résistance (ANACR) and Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d'Italia (ANPI) were also considered flanking organizations, indeed important ones, in that their memberships included large numbers of communists, and there was general goodwill toward the communists on the part of their wider memberships. Haig (2011, pp. 107–117) provides more on the parties' postwar affiliated and associated organizations, their respective aims, functioning, offshoots, dimensions, and activities.

11.

Although that definition of revolution was interpreted in non-ruling parties to different extents and at different moments, its default message remained the same: to effect the transitions to socialism first and foremost in their national contexts, within an eventual context of global transitions.

12.

Cells were primarily places of work-related deliberations, although wider issues were discussed at this level in certain circumstances.

13.

This is not to be confused with the “incompatibility” law passed in Italy in the 1970s stating that those who held positions of responsibility in the unions could not also hold similar positions in political parties.

14.

In proportional terms this number coincides with the available data on defections from the PCFFV at or around that time. Haig (2011, ch. 8) has a detailed statistical and demographic breakdown of the data against overall trends within the PCF during the same period.

15.

However, as may be expected, this delineation, although real, was also complicated in some instances by personal experiences of the Tito-Stalin Split and its consequences; see Haig (2011).

16.

The only other comparable action taken by a PCI organization that fall was that of the PCI Federation of Mantua (PCIFM), which sent a motion of protest to the PCI Central Committee. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this was subsequently disseminated or displayed within the PCIFM or across that wider community. Borroni (2010) wrote more on this and on other types of communist resistance to the interventions.

17.

Loris Fortuna left the nearby PCI Federation of Udine in 1956 in protest to the Soviet interventions in Hungary. He subsequently joined the PSI and campaigned systematically for the legalization of divorce in Italy.

18.

“Doppiezza” was Palmiro Togliatti's pragmatic and arguably necessary approach to Cold War politics. It presented a “revolutionary” agenda wrapped in a constitutional “package.”

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