‘A Catholic festival, a soviet and a Sunday market all rolled into one.’ For the novelist Alberto Moravia, the Festa dell’Unità festivals staged in towns and villages around Italy after 1945 put on display the multiple souls of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Combining a centrepiece national festival with thousands of local events each year, the feste meant drinks, dancing, partisan marches, fairground games, and plentiful helpings of tortellini. It was intended as a festival capable of attracting apolitical Italians to a Communist event.
At its root, the feste were fundraisers for the PCI’s daily newspaper, l’Unità. Its militants knew that the party press was a collective endeavour: not just its editorial line, but the actual work of producing and distributing a paper, mobilising members in a shared cause. So, too, did the feste. As Anna Tonelli writes in her book Falce e Tortello, PCI branches would spend months preparing these events. Workers from one factory would be appointed to run a boxing tournament, while others would be in charge of assembling an orchestra or running a vegetable-growing contest.
Tonelli’s punning title doesn’t translate well into English: we could get the same idea with ‘hammer and salsiccia’ (Italian for sausage). That is to say that PCI leaders saw entertainment, socialising, and even eating as a space for politics, just as much as organising on the factory floor. In the thirties, they had seen Fascism provide cheap escapism to the masses, fusing aggressive nationalism with sport. After 1945, the PCI’s feste featured often lowbrow entertainment, but also a pageantry of community feeling and class pride.
Much has been written about the PCI’s post-war cultural influence, which successfully enshrined the party’s historic leader Antonio Gramsci as a leading Italian intellectual and also won over famous artists, filmmakers, and writers to its cause. But a considerable amount of this cultural influence was part of an older ‘enlightening’ mission, inherited from the great social democratic parties of the late nineteenth century, based on the conviction that it was up to the working class to master and build on the high points of bourgeois culture.
Doubtless, PCI had real achievements in this regard — many of its leaders had no more than a primary school education but assumed conventionally ‘intellectual’ jobs like editing l’Unità. Yet a fuller understanding of the PCI’s successes must also reckon with its more everyday forms of popular engagement. This meant creating networks of community and solidarity around the party which, though shaped by its oppositional position in national politics, were far from a restrictive subculture.
More Lasagne Please, Comrade!
The post-war situation hardly looked promising for the PCI’s influence. In the Resistance, the Party’s Garibaldi brigades were the biggest force against the Nazis, mobilising about 60 per cent of all partisans. But only a small minority of Italians joined the anti-fascist revolt, and from 1947 the Christian Democrats — the party of the Catholic Church and NATO — had banished the PCI from government. The next decade was marked by intense official anti-communism, including the blanket excommunication of PCI members.
Faced with permanent Christian Democratic rule, the PCI began to carve out a kind of ‘counter-society.’ In a land without strong state-guaranteed rights, the PCI offered the solidarity of its mass of numbers (topping 2 million members by the end of the 1940s) but also millions-strong consumer cooperatives and mass solidarity initiatives. From 1945 to 1951, amidst the devastation and misery caused by the war, some 70,000 children from poor Southern families boarded trains to stay with PCI members in other regions.
This initiative by the PCI-run Italian Women’s Union (UDI) was a powerful display of the solidarity a mass workers’ party could provide, even when out of power. In her depiction of these convoys, Viola Ardine’s Il treno dei bambini tells of how flag-waving crowds welcomed the carriages of 6-to-12-year-olds, typically with a brass-band accompaniment. This not only reflected the PCI’s pride in its efforts, but also offered a little taste of ceremony for children who had been left without a roof or an education by the state.
At first, the feste looked more like a means of rallying militants, who would travel to a single national event. In September 1948, a massive 800,000 militants turned out for a festa in Monza, near Milan. This particular national feste was addressed by PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti, who made it his first public appearance since being shot by a far-right militant that July. Local branches were soon tasked with reproducing these festivities locally — and creating a similar buzz. 700 feste were held on the third Sunday of September 1949, and by the late 1970s, over 8,000 took place each year.
Rather than as a focus of political mobilisation, the feste were advertised as a ‘family day out’ to be enjoyed by all working people. For this reason, food was central. According to Tonelli’s account, adverts for the national festa in Ferrara in 1960 promised 1 million cappelletti di zucca (pasta stuffed with butternut squash) and 26 quintals (2.6 tonnes) of lasagne. By the seventies, the feste even featured commercial stands and advertising.
There was also a serving of politics — a political culture that more often relied on films, artistic displays, and ‘greetings’ from party notables than set speeches or debates. The PCI had plenty of activities to be involved in, with ‘section’ offices even in small villages, party schools to train up cadres, and a community of militants who had already been tempered in hard struggles. But the feste were about turning the party outward, showing that the PCI was for the broad mass of people, and not just a militant minority.
All this did, however, raise political questions. The PCI press catered for varied tastes, with their culture magazine Vie Nuove almost exactly imitating the tone and cover format of the prominent US photo-weekly Life. In the immediate post-war years, the PCI’s idea of a ‘national-popular’ culture promoted social realist cinema with working-class protagonists. But it also borrowed heavily from Hollywood, and was in essence seeking to outcompete the overbearing presence of the Church with a secular, even consumerist vision of mass entertainment.
Elements of conservatism remained, especially when it came to the family and gender. In the earlier days of the feste, women’s participation was largely limited to ‘motherly’ roles — a euphemism for having to do the cooking, and more. There were also ‘Miss Unità’ pageants, in which the winner could lay her hands on a sewing machine, a handbag, or a screen-test. Even since the twenties, the PCI had prominent women leaders, and these militants were little impressed by the claim that these were anything other than beauty contests.
The sexism inherent in these displays, banished by the early 1970s, illustrated a wider problem. ‘Collective joy’ meant different things to different people, and a party which repeatedly scored well over 10 million votes had to mobilise Italians with very varied expectations. At the level of personal tastes, this was hardly irresolvable: if some people enjoyed watching balletic representations of the Resistance, and others sharing a bottle of Campari with the comrades, both activities could take place under one string of bunting.
Yet political judgements were also made on appropriate forms of culture. US-imported fads were especially troublesome for the Communists. And if in the forties, young PCI intellectuals from the upper-middle class had earnestly embraced ‘national-popular’ culture, sixties youth crazes like hippiedom were defined precisely by the desire to stand out. As Ivan Pagliaro has previously written, the arrival of Saturday Night Fever and its importing of disco to Italy in 1978 tore the PCI between condemnation and a rather sceptical desire to ‘understand’.
The changing role of women posed even more fundamental questions. PCI pageantry made icons of ‘strong women’ — from partisan martyrs and widowed mothers to Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who in 1963 became the first woman to go to space. Yet such imagery grew out of step with the role which even young women PCI comrades wanted to take up. As one women’s organiser, Adriana Seroni, put it, it was unfair to celebrate women comrades only if they had ‘a body like Marilyn Monroe and a head like Lenin.’
In the eighties, a more politicised feminism also put into question the ‘family day out’ vibe of the feste. Tonelli’s account presents the media hubbub surrounding a women’s feste in Bari in 1985, which featured a debate on monogamy and the right (or not) to cheat. Miriam Mafai, a veteran of the Resistance, retorted that if the past was marked by ‘a rather gloomy and closed Catholic-Soviet-petty-bourgeois moralising’, there was no need to import an aggressive individualism passed off as ‘modernisation.’
Where Mafai rejected idle ‘parlour-room chatter’, the national festa in Ferrara that year boasted a ‘black and pink parlour-room’, provoking broader discussions of relationships and sexuality. This turn did at least allow for a reckoning with past hypocrisies. In 1948, Togliatti had sparked media scandal by leaving his wife Rita Montagnana (herself a cadre) for Nilde Iotti; by 1987, Iotti, now first female president of the lower house, could speak openly at the festa of how her own comrades had long derided her.
After the PCI
Today, it’s common in radical-left academia to paint the post-war Communist parties as repressive, and various militant subcultures to their left as representing the dynamic movements in society. Seeking to build bridges with the majority-Catholic population, Togliatti in particular was reticent to draw dividing lines over ‘family’ questions, though the PCI was ultimately important in the 1974 referendum that entrenched the right to divorce, against staunch Christian-Democratic opposition.
Again in 1974, Pier Paolo Pasolini — the Communist filmmaker and poet whose homosexuality had scandalised many of his PCI comrades — paid a remarkable tribute to the party’s place in Italian public life. While Pasolini was dismissive of the performative radicalism of the student left, he recognised the PCI’s own power to transcend subculture, able to draw broad masses of Italians toward another vision of what their country could be. As he wrote in a famous column, the PCI represented:
A clean country in a filthy country, an honest country in a dishonest country, an intelligent country in an idiotic country, a cultured country in an ignorant country, a humanistic country in a consumerist country.
Pasolini’s conclusion was not to celebrate the enlightened minority, but to focus on the need for the two Italian nations to establish ‘diplomatic relations’. Even if the Communist counter-society was in so many ways better than Christian-Democratic Italy, it could not just remain an island unto itself. If their values seemed incompatible, there was no chance that the one Italy ‘sunk up to its neck in degradation and degeneration, and the other intact and uncompromised, could be the basis of peace and constructive relations.’
Pasolini’s words on the Left’s cultural superiority remain famous. But they are now mostly weaponised as a kind of justification for the middle-class left that developed in the 1990s. Where in the seventies, the PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer had emphasised morality in politics, the neoliberalised left of the nineties radicalised this into a vision of politics as culture war, abandoning the politics of shared material interest. Presently in Italy, leading centre-left politicians in the Democratic Party routinely deride the masses as ‘functional illiterates’ unable to see what’s good for them.
Even today, after the demise of the PCI, there are still political festivals serving up the odd plate of lasagne. They are a weak reminder of a mass politics that no longer exists, a sense of class pride which has given way to a managerial left imposing austerity. Today’s Democratic leaders, like their British counterparts, speak of the need to ‘get back in touch with local communities.’ Yet outside of election season, wherever working-class Italians are having a good time, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be less.