A Socialist Education

Wish they were here. Turin, December 2018.

For me, to join the Party of Proletarian Revolution was not just a simple matter of signing up with a political organisation; it meant a conversion, a complete dedication. Those were still the days when to declare oneself a Socialist or a Communist was equivalent to throwing oneself to the winds, and meant breaking with one’s parents and not finding a job.

If the material consequences were harsh and hard, the difficulties of spiritual adaptation were no less painful. My own internal world, the “Middle Ages,” which I had inherited and which were rooted in my soul, and from which, in the last analysis, I had derived my initial aspiration to revolt, were shaken to their foundations, as though by an earthquake.

Everything was thrown into the melting-pot, everything became a problem. Life, death, love, good, evil, truth, all changed their meaning or lost it altogether. It is easy enough to court danger when one is no longer alone; but who can describe the dismay of once and for all renouncing one’s faith in the individual immortality of the soul? It was too serious for me to be able to discuss it with anyone; my Party comrades would have found it a subject for mockery, and I no longer had any other friends. So, unknown to anyone, the whole world took on a different aspect. How men are to be pitied.

The conditions of life imposed on the Communists by the Fascist conquest of the state were very hard. But they also served to confirm some of the Communists’ political theses and provided an opportunity to create a type of organisation which was in no way incompatible with the Communist mentality.

So I too had to adapt myself, for a number of years, to living like a foreigner in my own country. One had to change one’s name, abandon every former link with family and friends, and live a false life to remove any suspicion of conspiratorial activity. The Party became family, school, church, barracks; the world that lay beyond it was to be destroyed and built anew.

The psychological mechanism whereby each single militant becomes progressively identified with the collective organisation is the same as that used in certain religious orders and military colleges, with almost identical results. Every sacrifice was welcomed as a personal contribution to the “price of collective redemption”; and it should be emphasised that the links which bound us to the party grew steadily firmer, not in spite of the dangers and sacrifices involved, but because of them.

This explains the attraction exercised by Communism on certain categories of young men and of women, on intellectuals, and on the highly sensitive and generous people who suffer most from the wastefulness of bourgeois society. Anyone who thinks he can wean the best and most serious-minded young people away from Communism by enticing them into a well-warmed hall to play billiards, starts from an extremely limited and unintelligent conception of mankind.

It is not surprising that the first internal crises which shook the Communist International left me more or less indifferent. These crises originated from the fact that the main parties which had adhered to the new International, even after the formal acceptance of the twenty-one conditions laid down by Lenin to govern admission, were far from homogeneous. They had in common a hatred of imperialist war and of its results; they united in criticising the reformist ideas of the Second International; but, as to the rest, for good or ill, each reflected its own country’s unequal degree of historical development.

That is why there were notable differences of opinion between Russian Bolshevism, formed in an atmosphere in which political liberty and a differentiated social structure were both alien concepts, and the left-wing Socialist groups of the Western countries. The history of the Communist International was therefore a history of schisms, a history of intrigues and of arrogance on the part of the directing Russian group toward every independent expression of opinion by the other affiliated parties.

One after another, they were forced to break with the Communist International: the currents most attached to democratic and parliamentary forms (Frossard), the groups most attached to legality and most opposed to attempts at coups d’etat (Paul Levi), the libertarian elements who deluded themselves about Soviet Democracy (Roland-Holst), the revolutionary trade-unionists who opposed the bureaucratic submission of the trade unions to the Communist Party (Pierre Monatte, Andres Nin), the groups most reluctant to break off all collaboration with Social Democracy (Brandier, Bringolf, Tasca), and the extreme Left Wing which was intolerant of any opportunist move (Bordiga, Ruth Fischer, Boris Souvarine).

These internal crises took place in a sphere far removed from my own and so I was not involved. I do not say this boastfully; on the contrary, I am merely trying to explain the situation.

The increasing degeneration of the Communist International into a tyranny and a bureaucracy filled me with repulsion and disgust, but there were some compelling reasons which made me hesitate to break with it; solidarity with comrades who were dead or in prison, the nonexistence at that time of any other organised anti-Fascist force in Italy, the rapid political, and in some cases also moral, degeneration of many who had already left Communism, and finally the illusion that the International might be made healthy again by the proletariat of the West, in the event of some crisis occurring within the Soviet regime.

Just as I was leaving Moscow, in 1922, Alexandra Kollontai said to me: “If you happen to read in the papers that Lenin has had me arrested for stealing the silver spoons in the Kremlin, that simply means that I’m not entirely in agreement with him about some little problem of agricultural or industrial policy.”

Adapted from Ignazio Silone’s untitled essay in  The God That Failed, edited by Arthur Koestler (1949). Published under a Creative Commons license. Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.