The number of readers for a novel titled The Communist, in the United States, with its long history of bogeyman fears about the word itself, much less what it represents, would seem to be very few; an Italian communist at that! For all the enormous impact of communism on the world, the number of communist or socialist protagonists in American novels probably doesn’t amount to the fingers on four hands1.  Nevertheless New York Review Press was interested enough to publish Frederika Randall’s 2002 translation to English of Guido Morselli’s 1976 novel, along with an interesting introduction by Elizabeth McKenzie.

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Walter Ferranini is no longer a young man, but not yet old.  He has just been elected to the Italian parliament in 1958 from Reggia-Emilia in northern Italy where he was, for thirteen years, an organizer for the PCI (Partido Italiania Communista.)  After an introduction of the man and several of his colleagues, his woman friend, Nuccia, and current circumstances in 1958 Rome we are dropped into his earlier years.

As a young man he had fought in Spain against Franco’s forces until May 1938 when he and the remnants of the International Brigades were smuggled over the border into France.  Unable to return to Italy where Mussolini’s fascists were in full control he found his way to America — and was seduced, by the country and by one of its daughters.

After knocking around Chicago and New York, Ferranini finds work in Philadelphia for the Demarr Company, a supplier of chocolate, coffee, sugar and other sundries.  The owner, De Marco, is from the old country and hopes Walter’s lack of English will keep him from chatting away the hours with the native speakers. In 1940 the war has begun though not yet with the U.S. in it.  Demand for Demarr Company products is growing and with it profits,  and Ferranini’s salary.  Soon he is checking stock prices on the wall of the bank.  He buys a car and puts a down-payment on a little house.  He is swallowed up by “bourgeois society’s powerful digestive system.”

Soon he is eying the boss’s daughter, Nancy Demarr — “the daughter of surplus value” he tells himself, with the last vestiges of his old beliefs.  They are married.  Soon however, the war is in full flower and…  

she had embraced an Americanism – a “sort of inward looking nationalism worshiping the customs, memory, and “heritage of the stock, ” a creed espoused by people whose patriotism-cum-social-conservatism verged on racist idiocy.”

Snobbism had become her ideology.  When her younger siblings are sent to a Catholic school Nancy cannot contain herself.  She screams at her father,

“The kids were meant to go to an American public school, not debase themselves studying with Poles, Puerto Ricans, and Italians.”

Italians –to one of which she is married. The war ends, the marriage collapses and Walter returns to Italy.  His militancy re-aroused he throws himself into organizing for the PCI.

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Now, after thirteen years of organizing, — about which we only hear scarce reference — it is 1958. The famous “secret speech” of Nikita Khrushchev in early 1956, revealing and denouncing Stalin’s crimes and atrocities, has thrown Communist parties all over the world into turmoil, including the PCI.

Calls by many to de-Stalinize the Party are met with claims by others that this is only a ruse to allow Communist  deputies to become more bourgeois.  Togliatti, the leader of the Party, admired and reasonable, decides to allow intellectuals and artists into the Party instead of only members of the working class.  Among the members is at least one who was “a Fascist of the first hour…. today he’s a good element, head of the PCI organization in such and such.”

As a newly elected member, still fresh from day-to-day organizing, Ferranini drafts a workers protection bill to find it delayed and deferred: “it is not the proper time.”  A fellow Party member calls him to insure  Ferranini’s support — “not on how to advance socialism in my home district but to “support” him.  Soon he is called to another meeting to explain a letter in which “he had unleashed all his ideological and personal ire on the central bureaucracy.”

The contradictions between the “ambition” needed to push forward with plans and programs for the proletariat and the “personalism” which such ambition breeds, are on his mind. On a trip to Russia, it seems that even in the motherland, the struggle has been abandoned.

“You may know,” Leonid Victorovic replied, “that from the Seventeenth Congress it’s been officially established that demanding equal treatment for individuals is petit bourgeois nonsense.  Also, Marxism is opposed to egalitarianism.

And the problems of family and sex do not disappear.  Ferranini is seeing Nuccia, the wife of another Party member. She is a former partisan fighter, separated but not divorced. Though they have tried to be circumspect her husband, also in the Party and wanting to rise, has reappeared and wants her back.  She is warned; the head of the women’s committee makes a house call and tells her, politely but certainly:

“You can count on our complete discretion. But do allow me to hope that our intervention will prove beneficial to the welfare of your family.”

Nuccia pushes back, arguing with Ferranini, who half-heartedly defends the Party,

“There is no point in battling for a revolution if it’s going to preserve bourgeois morals.  It’s said that when Russian youth dance, the Komsomol prescribes a gap of at least twenty centimeters!”

I’m beginning to think, she says

“… that no other human instinct is as powerful as order. We start out intending to make a revolution, and maybe we even do, and then we decide that order is absolutely necessary. Order, rules, tranquillity.”

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The final unraveling comes, as befits an intellectual, not over personal or bureaucratic matters, but over ideology. A self-taught expert in Marxist theory, Ferranini also understands and believes in biology, evolution, and science.  This presents certain problems with Marx’s theory of history. When Alberto Moravia, the famous novelist and then a supporter of the Party, asks him to contribute a magazine piece, he does so, questioning one of the basic theories of Marxist analysis – that alienated labor is due to the workers having no ownership or control over their production; that when communism arrives, labor will no longer be alienated.  Not so, writes Ferranini.  The alienation of labor will not be ended by communism.  Alienation isn’t even the right word.  When, as an organizer, he talked to workers they had no idea what he meant by “alienation,” until he told them  “exhaustion, fatigue.” Even with a pay raise of ten times, a worker will still be tired at the end of the day.

As one of his colleagues had told him,

In southern Italy we don’t say lavorare to mean ‘to labor, to work,’ we say faticare, as in ‘to slave, to slog.’

Work, is by its nature, and of necessity, depleting. In a communist world, work might be more fairly distributed and compensated, but with work comes fatigue.

… so long as we live, we will be obliged to struggle to live…

This is heresy, of course, and Walter is asked to come before a committee of three  –not for interrogation and discipline, not at all,  just for some advice and help in drafting a proper recantation. Without the brutality of the earlier Stalinist trials and recantations, Walter succumbs. “Now convinced of his error, it was a comfort to feel indebted and ready to pay. … it was unforgivably careless, the behavior of an individual who had acted utterly on impulse. They would accuse him. You are irresponsible. And he would admit: I’m irresponsible. Take all my duties away. I don’t deserve even to lead a party cell. Just in time Walter’s ex-wife in the United States sends a message that she is dying in a hospital and would like to see him.  His trip, his near death in a Baltimore snow-storm and few days with Nancy completes his slow dis-illusion. When she confesses her complete change of ideas, that she has become more like him, a supporter of the left-out and marginalized, he is barely responsive, feeling “an intense need for silence. A need that intensified whenever Nancy was around.” And so he leaves, flying back across the Atlantic, to a future he cannot imagine, looking for freedom “to be neither here nor there.”

The closing lines of the novel are:

“He pushed the papers away, and buckled his seat belt.  He thought: I’ll eat, then I’ll sleep.”

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So yes, it’s an odd sort of novel, of slow loss of faith and direction, not through sudden realization or moment of crisis as for those in The God that Failed but as many have experienced after intense and committed work for an ideal or a cause, whether in youthful volunteer work,  in Synanon-like cults, the Catholic Church or Silicon Valley start-ups. Such separation is sometimes fraught with moral struggle, the fear of loss of friends and purpose, or with anger and resentment, but for some, as with Walter, there is simply a recognition of its being over, of being tired, not furious.

What Morselli presents us with is not the romantic revolutionary, in the throes of organizing and beating back the capitalist exploiter or the Fascist gangs. What we have is a man struggling with existential indecision, in 1958, to be or not to be a communist any longer. As the Party and the militancy of his youth loses sap and vigor, as Communist Deputies go to the horse races instead of Party meetings, as a militant sidles up to ask a special favor for a relative, what is a man to do? He is, as he says of himself,

“Ex-proletariat, yes, with a bourgeois nervous system”
 

The reader’s involvement in the novel, for those potentially interested, may well depend on what inspired the picking up of the book.  If it is to read an account of a revolutionary struggle, or even of the struggle of the poor against the mighty, this will not satisfy; if it is to understand a recent and interesting period of Italian history, then yes, reading will reward, somewhat.  If the reader has no background knowledge of communism, some references may be obscure:  why “de-Bukharinizing” is more necessary than “de-Stalinizing” may take some research to figure out.  For some, working out such puzzles are part of the enjoyment of reading beyond the immediate and obvious.

The lack of tension, of problem, confrontation and solution, preferrably with a little “action” may be a bigger speed-bump for some.  The central conflict is not sharp and character shaping as we tend to expect in American novels. The writing of the disputed essay, for example, is not done with agonies and fore-thought of what it will surely bring; he just writes it.  The threat to expel is just that, expulsion, not a firing squad.  As with Gustave Flaubert  writing about people he does not like in Sentimental Education, so it is with Morselli:  writing about a man losing energy and direction, without a fight, it is hard to sustain our interest. 

Not that it’s not interesting at all. With patient attention we recognize that many of our own human changes are made just so, without-decision, in a slow falling away.  After the Big Bang of early adolescence we find that what was once vital, close and important is more and more distant, less present and even, strange.    So it ends for Walter, not with a shouting-pushing, cursing expulsion, or resignation, but on a plane, returning from America again, unsure where he’s going, looking for freedom

“to be neither here nor there.”

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All of Morselli’s books were published posthumously, after his suicide in 1973 at age 61, following repeated rejections of his novels.  The Communist, in 1976 was followed by Encounter With a Communist, 1980, taking place earlier in time, during the end of WWII, as a clandestine communist and a bourgeois lady struggle with love and class.  Not yet translated, it is apparently more comic and caustic than the book here reviewed.

Footnote TitleFootnote Description
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My curiosity about the presence or absence of communists, or socialists, in the world of novels was not because I was looking for angels or devils but because my surprise at seeing a novel so titled suggested how rare such mentions were, something that had never occurred to me before.   Communists, with or without a capital C, had enormous effect on the world and on the United States; every list of books that “changed the world” puts the Communist Manifesto in the top-tier.  From the 1910s on, and especially after the Russian Revolution and again from the Great Depression through the mid 1950s, communists as individuals and as Party members had outsized influence in the many struggles to stop child labor, bring about the eight-hour day, organize unions, win women’s suffrage and support racial equality, in the United States and in countries around the world. Leaving aside the Revolutions of the Soviet Union and China, the effect on the lives and well-being of ordinary people has been enormous.

Yet, scanning my brain-bank for communist or socialist protagonists in any American novel I come up short to none.  One of the earliest realist writers concerned with the lives of working poor was Theodore Dreiser.  Sister Carrie, (1900) has Carrie herself on a shoe factory assembly line, punching holes in the uppers.  Carrie’s husband, George Hurstwood, gets himself hired as a strikebreaker –with some mixed feelings– in a big Streetcar strike.  After several days trouble breaks out, fists fly and shots are fired.  Hurstwood decides he’s had enough.  Nowhere, however are the words “organizer,” “union,” “socialist” or “communist.”

Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel (1908) has a good deal to say about organized labor, and social revolution.  The main protagonist Ernest Everhard, is a Socialist with a very public class-analysis and excoriation of the Oligarchs, but no communists anywhere.  Told as a hagiographic biography  written hundreds of years in the past and only rediscovered now, fantasy is reported as history:

“…the great machinist strike had been broken. Two hundred thousand machinists, along with their five hundred thousand allies in the metalworking trades, had been defeated in as bloody a strike as had ever marred the United States.”

Sherwood Anderson’s two labor novels,The Marching Men (1917) and  Beyond Desire,(1934) about The Loray Mill strike of 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina, and have no mention of communist or communism but have several instances of socialists. 

John Steinbeck has organizers throughout the pages of several novels, but not one identified as a communist. Jim Nolan in, In Dubious Battle, (1936,) interviews to join “The Party” and is brought along by Mac, a seasoned strike instigator, but the word communist is not to be found; reviews of the book in the communist Masses and Mainstream, July 1949 were scathing.  Steinbeck’s most famous novel, Grapes of Wrath (1939), updates and much improves In Dubious Battle. Even so, though the growers and police constantly warn the “Okies” in the Weedpatch camp and other “Hoovervilles” about “Reds”, there are none identified as such.   The “getting organized,” strikes and battle with police are spontaneous and by word of mouth.

John Dos Passos offered Adventures of a Young Man, (1938).  As Charles Humboldt says in a Masses and Mainstream (June 1949) review, ‘all the communist characters are despicable and weak.’

Even with more and more writers joining socialist or communist writers associations if not the Parties themselves during the Great Depression, communist and socialist protagonists found very few stories to appear in.  Among them were titles such as The Death and Birth of David Markand, by Waldo Frank, 1934, and The Shadow Before, William Rollins, 1934. Richard Wright, a CPUSA member for a while, portrays Mary and Jan, in Native Son, as two naïve and proselytizing communists whose bumbling social concerns lead to the story that explodes upon us.  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man features white Brotherhood people, who are interested in the narrator helpin the Party grow but not interested enough to see him as a man with particular talents and interests, better placed in particular and related organizing tasks instead sent out as a symbol of the Party’s racial platform.

According to some reviewers The Great Midland, Alexander Saxton, 1948 is one of the best novels ever to portray the lives of American Communist activists … a story of love and radical politics set just before World War II, a title I’d wager, no reader of this post, including yours truly, has ever heard.

It’s not that communism is not featured as a dark and evil threat in many novels, and films.  From Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Manchurian Candidate there are plenty of communist-scare novels in which nefarious personages and cabals, infiltrators and spies and even evil monsters, try to subvert and dominate America. This is not what interested me.  Rather it is that millions of people, living rather ordinary day-to-day lives, joined or associated with others, sometimes communists, sometimes socialists, sometimes civic or church related organizations to improve the conditions of their lives.  They scarcely make a dent in the literature of their times, or anything we can find today.

When we look at European novels, the pickings are not quite so slim, nor so quickly forgotten.  Andre Malraux’s widely read Man’s Fate has several named communists, in their capacity as revolutionaries, and his Man’s Hope has communists, anarchists and socialists fighting in the Spanish Civil War, some identified as such, others part of the general anti-fascist mix.   Ignazio Silone in Bread and Wine and The Seed Beneath the Snow creates Pietro Spina, a communist, above all an anti-Fascist, who finds his way to more traditional beliefs. Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-Brit famously, wrote Darkness at Noon, (1940) in which Rubashov finally confesses to false charges and is executed.

The lack of significant representation in the world of literature is not of course confined to communists, or socialists.  American Quakers, who have had an out sized influence on American life, from prison reform to abolition, to women’s suffrage to war resistance can scarcely be found in its pages. College professors with student-sex problems make for good titles, classroom teachers solving intractable problems of childhood, uninvolved or over-entitled parents, not so much.  The American obsession with cowboys and outlaws and criminal masterminds sweeps all before it.  Women’s equality has come to mean, equal shooting, equal fighting and equal mayhem — freedom to cage-fight for all!

For a longer list of Workers, Unions and Organizing in Literature, with notes as to the presence or absence of communists or socialists, in progress,  see, in the upper right column of All In One Boat, Workers, Unions and Organizing in Literature