Retracing a Century

Lucio Magri, The Tailor of Ulm: Communism in the Twentieth Century

Verso, 432pp, £30, ISBN 9781844676989

reviewed by John Green

The title of Magri’s book takes its inspiration from Bertolt Brecht’s poem about an 18th century German tailor in the city of Ulm, who thought he could fly, but jumping off the local church spire he ended up like a shot bird, dead on the town square. Brecht’s point was that even if we fail at something once, history can make it possible in the long term. Even though the author develops his perspectives from his experience within the Italian Communist Party (PCI), his analysis is balanced and even-handed, and his insights extend far beyond the Italian domestic sphere, providing an invaluable platform for understanding the apparent impasse of the present global and systemic crisis.

Magri emphasises the influence of Antonio Gramsci’s thought on the PCI and how his ideas, even though often only sketched, can still offer a vital source of creative Marxist praxis. He reminds us that the Italian Party was the largest in Western Europe, with 2 million members, at its highpoint, and consistently won 28% of the vote in national elections, and it governed in a number of local and regional administrations for lengthy periods. Why such a successful party dissolved itself in 1991 is still very much a puzzle. Lucio Magri is a journalist and was a long-standing member of the PCI and later founder, together with other dissident members of the PCI, of the critical journal Il Manifesto. After the dissolution of the PCI he became a short-term member of the Communist Refoundation Party, before leaving not long after. In The Tailor of Ulm, Magri successfully intertwines the experience of the Italian Communist Party with the global struggle of the international communist movement, and the broader history of the 20th century.

Magri offers a penetrating and highly illuminating re-evaluation of this period from a critical Marxist perspective, refuting the mainstream interpretation of 20th century history that has become a quasi-catechism: the positing of the ‘two totalitarianisms’ of communism and fascism as the twin evils that were defeated by the ‘democracies’; the arguments used throughout the Cold War, that the Soviet Union posed a real military threat to the West, despite the country’s almost total devastation by the Nazis; and the idea that communism/socialism was a tyrannical system that can now be pigeon-holed as an unfortunate aberration of history. In the present crisis, the ideas of Marx and the ideal of communism are again being discussed. Magri argues that a proper assessment and re-evaluation of the communist experience is vital if we wish to confront monopoly capitalism meaningfully and successfully. Carrying out such an assessment must involve a fact-based critique of mainstream historical narratives, the use of counterfactual arguments and an honest self-criticism on the part of all those on the Left.

He begins his discourse by taking us back to the First World War, pointing out that it not only laid waste to large swathes of Western Europe, destroying the lives of many millions and redrawing the maps, but also destroyed a burgeoning socialist and internationalist workers’ movement that appeared to be on the cusp of gaining power in several countries. It destroyed social democracy as a real political force, transforming social democratic parties into liberal democratic ones, seeking modest reforms of capitalism rather than its overthrow. Magri argues convincingly that the Second World War could have been easily avoided if the ruling classes in Western Europe had not banked on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union destroying each other. While in no sense being an apologist for Stalin, he also notes that Stalin made all possible overtures to the West in order to forge an anti-fascist alliance as Hitler’s inexorable rise and intentions became increasingly clear, but was rebuffed.

The main thrust of the book is that the world could have been a very different place today if serious mistakes and misjudgements had not been made by the Left, primarily the communist parties. However, he is not out to place the main burden of blame on them, arguing that the visceral hatred of communism by the ruling elites worldwide created the conditions and circumstances in which such errors were almost unavoidable. Communists were forced to work and struggle in extremely hostile environments, harassed, persecuted and vilified. Not unlike the early Christians, they never had the luxury of being able to debate openly and at length or take considered and balanced decisions. The very siege situation they found themselves in led to the formation of centralist structures and military-style decision making processes and thus made it easier for autocrats like Stalin to gain the upper hand. More importantly, perhaps, he analyses the significance of the immense transformations that our societies have undergone, politically, socially and economically, arguing that new forms of organisation and of struggle are essential if the dangerous concentration of power within a narrow and unaccountable ruling elite is to be overcome, and humanity saved from barbarism.

He writes persuasively that capitalism, by its very nature is concerned only with short-term goals and is incapable of tackling the planet-threatening ecological, economic and social challenges facing us all; only some form of communist society, but a truly democratic one, can do that. In arguing his case, he demonstrates how the main bases that underpinned the arguments of the Left in Europe till now - a mass proletariat, strong trade unions and traditional parties with strong membership structures - have all but disappeared. We have seen a rise in fragmented, single-issue or sectional movements working outside the old traditional political structures. These by themselves cannot bring about the fundamental change in power structures that are essential if we are to overcome capitalist ossification and entrenchment of power. That is why, he argues, a form of ‘communist umbrella’ concept is needed to focus the energies of all these forces. In light of the current global crisis, it is a timely and persuasive argument, and Margi is not alone - leading thinkers like Žižek and Swyngedouw have lately argued that the idea of communism can be recovered and re-invented from its chequered history and from the association with the horrors of Stalinism.
John Green is a freelance journalist based in London. He is the author of several books, including a biography of the radical artist Ken Sprague and a recent biography of Friedrich Engels.