Changing Bases

An interview with Emanuele Macaluso

Emanuele Macaluso was an Italian trade unionist and politician with the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Davide Ceccanti: Why did you join the Communist party?

Emanuele Macaluso: I clandestinely joined the party in 1941, when the country was under fascist rule. I was 17 years old and had almost finished my studies. At the time, I was studying at the Mining Institute of Caltanissetta, in Sicily. There was a strong underground organization in town led by a worker called Calogero Boccadutri, who ended up becoming our cell chief. I formed a small anti-fascist group and was convinced to join the PCI by a friend of mine, Giannone, who came to visit me at the hospital when I had tuberculosis. He gave me the address of Calogero Boccadutri, and when I left the hospital, I contacted him and joined. My relationship with the PCI began like this, in hiding. I was responsible for political education, for our newspaper, and for our library. These were so important that, when Caltanissetta was bombed, my friend Michele Cala, died trying to save them. This is how I started my political life as a clandestine communist militant.

DC: Was antifascism your primary motivation?

EM: It was antifascism, combined with the social conditions of Sicily and my city. Caltanissetta was a city of sulfur miners, where everyone broadly shared a left political consciousness. The group which I organized was made up of other boys in the mining school, all children of workers. We went to mining school because we weren’t able to go to high school, or even get a technical education. My father was a railroad worker. He was never to be promoted because he went on strike in 1922, but after the war they made him a train driver.

DC: Tell us about your trade union organizing in Sicily after the war, between the 1940s and 1950s.

EM: After the liberation, I immediately started working for the union. I organized the first demonstrations to reopen the mines that had been flooded. The miners were well organized, but there were also bricklayers, bakers and mill owners from Caltanissetta. The Chamber of Labor where I worked was central to the struggles of workers of all backgrounds—at the time, there were also assemblies of widowed women fighting for their pensions. In 1947, the regional congress of the CGIL was held in Caltanissetta, and [Giuseppe] Di Vittorio came to this congress. It was he who proposed that I become the regional secretary of the CGIL and then took me to the national congress in Florence. I was 23 at the time. The problem was that I was born and raised in Caltanissetta, I did not know anything about the rest of Sicily. Having to lead the Sicilian trade union movement, at 23, was a huge risk, particularly in the midst of the massacre of Portella della Ginestra. Nevertheless, at the age of 23, I moved to Palermo.

DC: With new patronage networks, and the activities of the mafia, how did class conflict change after liberation?

EM: It changed profoundly, particularly due to the massive struggles over land distribution. Immediately after the liberation, the then–Communist Minister of Agriculture, Fausto Gullo, made two declarations: one that assigned uncultivated or poorly cultivated lands to farmers’ cooperatives, and another dedicated to the countryside. In Sicily, the land was mainly dedicated to cultivating wheat. Two thirds of the wheat produced on a plot of land went to its owner, and a remaining third went to the peasants who worked the land from dawn to sunset. Gullo completely reversed the proportion, demanding that 60 percent of the product would go to the peasants. There were fierce struggles, both over allocation of the land itself, and over the division of the product between the peasants, owners, and the mafia, which was engaged in the fiefdoms and rented them. The land of the princes was all in the hands of Calogero Vizzini, the head of the Sicilian mafia. There were deaths, shootings and arrests, and this worsened after the communists left government. But this moment was the transition from rebellion to politics. We began to think clearly about how the left can govern.

DC: In 1962, you moved to Rome and entered the Party Secretariat. By that point, you had organized Sicilian trade unions, worked in the Regional Assembly, and served as Party secretary in Sicily. Nevertheless, at age 23 you found yourself immersed in very intense and complicated political issues. What were the theoretical influences that helped you engage with and study Party doctrine? What was the internal educational infrastructure of the party like?

EM: In 1962, I was called to Rome to help Berlinguer prepare for the 10th National Party Congress. Once the Congress was over, I replaced Berlinguer as manager of the organization. Prior to that, I was in the CGIL Regional Assembly until 1962, and I followed Paolo Bufalini to Rome.

The politics of labor and the social relationships built around the wage relation were never theoretical for me. They were issues that had to be dealt with every day, by striking and occupying land. This is where my experience differed from that of other party leaders. I personally knew not hundreds, but thousands of militants all over Sicily. This was the school I attended—the direct, unmediated relationship with the world of work, with the peasants, with the workers, with the employees, has given me a very direct knowledge of reality.

DC: In 1973, Allende was overthrown and inflation spiked due to the oil crisis. Within the party, Berlinguer became party secretary and introduced two major innovations: internally, he developed a closer relationship with the DC, and externally, he developed Eurocommunism and the detachment from Moscow. In your experience, how did the seventies change the PCI?

EM: On the day of the Chilean coup, I was on vacation in the USSR with Luis Corvalan, the general secretary of the Chilean Communist Party. When we heard the news, we made the journey back to Rome together, and he left for Chile from there. The coup was a decisive signal of changes in the international climate. Specifically, it was a signal from the United States that it would not tolerate a socialist government in its so-called “backyard.” In Italy, we organized massive demonstrations in solidarity with the Allende government.

Many have argued that Berlinguer revolutionized the PCI by fostering a closer relationship with the Christian Democrats. This is true only in relation to the socialists. As far as I know, Berlinguer aimed to develop a direct relationship—what Petruccioli called “historic compromise”—with the Catholics in order to avoid a relationship with the Socialist Party. A direct relationship with the Socialist Party would have broken our party. There was too large a portion of the party against it. So the practical PCI-DC relationship was explicitly formed against the socialists: in this sense, yes, it was something unthinkable before to split the left so much.

Eurocommunism arises from an agreement with Berlinguer, Marchais and the Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party. It was not so much intended to break with the Soviet Union, as much as it was intended to indicate that there was not only Moscow—there was also Paris, Rome, and Madrid. It was a courageous choice and, in my opinion, full of possibilities that never materialized. Marchais was scolded harshly by Moscow, and the French communist party abandoned ship. But the intuition to indicate a plurality of centers was extraordinarily positive for international communism.

DC: Many viewed Eurocommunism as a shift towards social democracy.

EM: By signaling autonomy from the Soviets, it did open the possibility for a new relationship with social democracy. It was a commitment to a democratic and gradual movement towards socialism. The important thing was that we had a commitment to gaining power, and our idea of politics was integrated with the needs of society. This dynamic between socialism and social democracy could have created something profoundly revolutionary in Europe. But sadly, the commitment was not there.

DC: I’d like to talk a little about the 1983–84 reformation of the scala mobile. What was the PCI’s position during the 1985 referendum? What broader shifts in the relationship between the party and its electorate does the referendum point to?

EM: The referendum on the scala mobile was very complex. The scala mobile helped workers by pegging wages to inflation. But by the mid 80s, the degree of inflation we experienced was highly divisive. There was a lot of tension between workers over the referendum, and trade union leaders both in the CGIL and CISL had to handle the situation delicately. The “march of the forty thousand” is symptomatic of the fundamental shifts this period represents—it was a protest of leaders and managers, not workers. This statement of political identity by the professional class had never before manifested in Italian history. The notion that both bosses and workers were marching in the streets was an absolute novelty.

DC: Nevertheless, the 1985 referendum was lost.

EM: The referendum was lost because of divisions between the PCI and the CGIL. Berlinguer, who was extremely invested in the referendum, believed that Luciano Lama had doubts. And indeed, Lama thought that the scala mobile was falling apart. Added to these tensions was an agreement signed by Formica and Napolitano, the group leaders of the socialists and communists, which agreed to attenuate the referendum. This was rejected outright by Berlinguer, who considered the referendum a crucial battle in the broader scheme of class conflict.

Upon Berlinguer’s death in 1984, the PCI entered a period of decline. Natta excluded the reformist elements of the party, and by doing so he eliminated a clear political aim. The party grew disconnected from governance and the needs of workers.

DC: In between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the judicial scandals that led to the dissolution of the PSI in 1992–94, there were several attempts to unify the PCI and the PSI. These never worked out. What prevented the left from unifying in those years, particularly after the transformation of the Italian Communist Party into the Democratic Party of the Left (1989–91)?

EM: Under Occhetto’s leadership, many in the party grew increasingly distrustful of the PSI. For his part, Craxi always maintained that left unity had to be based on socialist leadership. Rather than coming together, the parties grew further and further apart in those years. The truth is that Occhetto did not consider the relationship with the PSI strategically essential. But beyond this, the PCI experienced internal splits. After Berlinguer’s death, I exposed a pact signed between Occhetto and D’Alema in which they planned their successive leadership of the party. But soon after I publicized this, mutual diffidence grew between them, and the party split into two camps.

DC: You are suggesting that the competition for leadership between D’Alema and Occhetto prevented the PCI from talking more openly with the PSI. Usually, the lack of dialogue between the two parties is attributed to Craxi.

EM: Neither Occhetto nor D’Alema wanted a strategic relationship with the PSI, particularly as Craxi envisioned it. But Craxi failed to preserve the agreement he made with Berlinguer in the 1970s. The PSI’s early shift to the left was entirely abandoned, and when the opportunity arose, the Craxi government made an agreement with the Christian Democrats and created the Pentapartito. Craxi’s strategy was to gain consensus and cease to be a minority. But this never happened, he never exceeded 14 percent of the votes.

DC: Do you consider it a missed opportunity?

EM: Yes. Until Berlinguer’s death and after the European elections that followed it, the PCI reached a maximum of 34 percent. After this point, the PCI slowly begins to decline. Was the downfall of the PCI in those years caused by Berlinguer’s death, or by political, cultural, and economic processes operating at an international level? I think the second option is the closest to reality. Times simply had changed. But these changes could have been dealt with differently if the left were united. As the left has not been committed to staying in government, we find ourselves today in a time when being a leftist, let alone a socialist, is seen as offensive.

DC: What lessons can the left glean from the experience of the PCI throughout the 70s?

EM: The most important thing is to build a party that is rooted in the experiences of the public. Our base has changed, but it has not disappeared, and similarly, our reasons to exist and to fight are becoming more pronounced. The Democratic Party today lacks this popular push, as did the movement of people like D’Alema. These people wanted to bring a force into government without having a political plan in society. Any party which disassociates itself from the public, which does not continually ask itself whether it is representing the movement in the electorate, will dissolve into obscurity. Conversely, every popular movement needs an organization which will politicize social unrest. Without internal governing bodies, parties are reduced to electoral aggregates serving their leaders.

February 20, 2021


Democracy or the Market

Third wayism and the problem of representation.

The problem of democratic representation has always turned on the question of the “have-nots”—that is, not only those without wealth and property, but also those marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, origin, religion and education. Even in a…

February 20, 2021


Revolution, Reform, and Resignation

In the 1980s, the left abandoned its language of transformation. Can it be regained?

Some time in 1991 I was invited to give a talk to the Andalusian Confederation of the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). Afterwards, the secretary of the confederation walked me back to my hotel. I asked him why there was…

Since President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law in August 2022, the Mexican auto assembly and parts industries have been booming. Tesla and the Chinese state-owned carmaker…

Read the full article

There is no excerpt because this is a protected post.

Read the full article

The Soviet Union’s construction of pipelines across Western Europe granted the superpower access to European markets—and capital. In his new book, The Soviet Union and the Construction of the Global…

Read the full article