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Anti-capitalist antecedents

Senoir Service

By Carlo Feltrinelli (translated by Alastair McEwen)

Granta Books, 2001, £20

Reviewed by

Niall Mulholland

AMID THE recent upturn in class struggle in Italy, and the alleged return of the Red Brigades’ armed campaign, the recent publication on the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli could hardly be more timely. Senoir Service charts the rise of the radical Feltrinelli publishing house in the post-war period, as well as its founder’s pivotal, and eventually fatal, role in the underground leftwing terrorist groups during the early 1970s.

Giangiacomo’s son, Carlo Feltrinelli, tells the story. To begin with, the narrative moves slowly and the author employs an idiosyncratic style throughout. Moreover, the political analysis of the left and society as a whole is often confused and inconclusive, to say the least. Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile and often compulsive read, with many lessons for the Italian left and anti-capitalist movement, as well as offering an insight into important aspects of 20th century literature.

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was born into a wealthy Italian family – his father ran a number of companies. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, the Feltrinelli empire increasingly came into conflict with the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. The death of Feltrinelli senior at a relatively young age is surrounded in some mystery – was it suicide resulting from hounding by the fascists?

As an adolescent, Giangiacomo first took an interest in the lives of workers and the poor during discussions with the staff who ran his family’s estate. He came to understand that, under capitalism, and the fascist regime it had spawned, the vast majority of people could never attain his privileges and were compelled to sell their labour to the bosses and landowners for a pittance. During the latter stages of the second world war, Giangiacomo joined the partisans, led by the Communist Party (PCI), fighting the invading German army and the remnants of Mussolini’s regime. It was a small step from this to formally joining the PCI.

Over the next few years, Giangiacomo played a key role in financing the activities of the PCI. In collaboration with the party, he established an important library, archives and a new publishing company, Feltrinelli Editore.

In the post-war period the PCI held a dominant position amongst the Italian working class. The country was in economic ruins and the ruling class was weak. Given the widespread radicalisation in society, it was entirely possible for the PCI to embark on a struggle to peacefully take power on a number of occasions. The leadership of the party, however, was firmly under the influence of the reactionary, ruling Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow, which wanted to come to an accommodation with Western imperialism. This lead the PCI to propose a coalition government in Italy, which would see them sharing power with ‘progressive’ capitalist parties and putting off the struggle for socialism to some distant date. But even this was too much for the Italian bosses, who were afraid that the PCI in office would unleash a revolution from below.

In the late 1950s Feltrinelli accidentally came across the manuscript of the novel Doctor Zhivago by the Russian writer Boris Pasternak. Set in Russia, the novel follows a multitude of characters from 1903 to 1943, the period of revolution and Stalinist degeneration. At once, Feltrinelli saw a masterpiece. Joseph Stalin and the PCI leaders saw it entirely differently – they could not abide any criticism whatsoever, implied or explicit, of the Moscow regime. (Unfortunately, the literary merits of the novel and its use as an anti-communist propaganda weapon by reactionaries in the West are important issues not treated in any depth by Carlo Feltrinelli.)

Senoir Service records the fascinating correspondence between Feltrinelli and Pasternak, as they successfully resisted clumsy attempts by the Stalinist bureaucracy to stop publication. Doctor Zhivago immediately became a best seller internationally, to be followed by a hugely popular film version. Feltrinelli was soon effectively expelled from the PCI.

Feltrinelli Editore scored another coup in 1958 and became the first to publish The Leopard, by Guisppe di Lampedusa. Described as ‘the greatest novel of the century’, The Leopard centres on the Prince of Salina in the 1860s during Risorgimento, a movement for Italian unification (the capitalist democratic revolution). Should he, a landowner and representative of the old feudal system, resist the forces of change or come to terms with them?

Whatever his own reading tastes, Feltrinelli was always keen to promote the avant-garde, including the works of the influential Group 63 literary circle. He also took the risk of illegally publishing and distributing novels banned under ‘obscenity’ laws, such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

Freed from PCI control, Feltrinelli spent the next years travelling the world and making links with various radical ‘Third World’ leaders and anti-imperialist and guerrilla movements. He published the writings of figures such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and a series of pamphlets on the unfolding revolution in the colonial world and the Middle East.

Feltrinelli’s political ideas were confused and contradictory. Lacking an independent class analysis, he increasingly sought to advocate guerrilla struggle to further the aims of the Italian working class. But guerrilla campaigns could only play a role in fighting the ruling classes in underdeveloped countries, where the peasantry predominated. Even then, isolated from a struggle of the working class, guerrilla movements could not provide a route to genuine socialist states. By contrast, Italy was a modern capitalist country. Here the struggle for power lay in the weapons of collective action by the working class, including the general strike.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a period of renewed student and labour struggles both in Italy and internationally, marking the end of the post-war economic boom and a new offensive by the bosses. Many in Italy feared an attempted coup d’état by the rightwing in response. As the conservative labour and PCI leaders refused to develop the mass movements, and confusion and impatience grew amongst some middle class youth and workers, Feltrinelli mistakenly prioritised organising ‘clandestine resistance’ to the right-wing threat. Along with the sprouting of other underground terrorist groups, such as the Red Brigades, he established the Partisan Action Group (GAP). As the GAP carried out a series of small-scale bomb attacks against neo-fascist targets and employers, its founder was forced to go on the run.

On 14 March 1972, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was found dead at the foot of an electricity pylon near Milan, apparently killed by his own explosives while on an operation with other GAP members. Like his father’s death, the passing of Giangiacomo is viewed suspiciously. Did the Italian secret services, which had a number of informants in the underground groups, have some hand in the events?

The sum contribution of the short-lived GAP to the class struggle, like the Red Brigades, was to disorientate some sections of the working class and to give the state excuses to use repressive measures. Yet 8,000 youth and workers attended Feltrinelli’s funeral. Undoubtedly, they were paying homage to a son of the ruling class who had broken ranks and pursued an intransigent goal of revolution, as well as having created a valuable publishing house whose affordable publications both informed and enlightened. But if Giangiacomo Feltrinelli’s life story is to serve in any way to educate the new generation of militant Italian workers and anti-capitalist youth, it is also necessary to learn from his serious political mistakes.


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