Communists Like Us

Use the red phone. Turin, December 2018.

That evening in November, immediately after the promulgation of the “special laws,” several of us escaped arrest by taking refuge in a little villa in a suburb of Milan, recently rented by one of our comrades who was masquerading as a painter.

In the working-class quarters, the streets were deserted, the taverns closed or silent, the houses in darkness. This gave the damp, cold time of the year an atmosphere of gloom. The police, in full war order, were carrying out a series of raids on suspected blocks of houses, as if they were enemy strong-points.

The number of people arrested was already very considerable and was growing day by day as more names and addresses came to light, either as the result of these raids, or of denunciations by spies and agents provocateurs, or of statements from the feebler people arrested, who had not been able to stand up to threats or torture.

Much the same was happening in other cities and provinces. The newspapers which could still be published (those in open opposition had been suppressed just about that time) had been ordered not to mention the arrests, and to report, instead, the tributes to the Italian dictatorship which eminent representatives of democracy and liberalism in other countries had been expressing.

But reports based on the information which the three or four party couriers collected from our local representatives in the most important areas, and brought to the central underground offices, left no doubt that the dictatorship intended to exterminate every trace of opposition.

The Communists alone possessed a clandestine organization of any efficiency. But in various provinces the police, sometimes not realising it themselves, had already by their raids destroyed our network of communications. Numerous comrades who had escaped arrest came in asking us for a permanent refuge in a city other than their own, and for false documents to enable them to travel and to make a fresh start.

Those of us who had been living under false names for some time were now in a much more advantageous position. But we were none too safe, either, as betrayal or carelessness on the part of anyone who had been arrested might at any time give the police a clue and put them on our tracks. So that evening I, too, had suddenly been warned not to return home. because it looked as if the police were picketing the house.

With others in the same condition, we had found temporary refuge in the pretended painter s little country villa. After putting a man on guard nearby and arranging what to do if surprised by the police, we resigned ourselves to spending the night on chairs, as the little house was very sparsely furnished and had only one bed.

With the bogus painter and his wife, we had a bogus Spanish tourist, a bogus dentist, a bogus architect and a German girl, a bogus student. We had already known each other for a couple of years; but, up to that day, our relations had been entirely confined to technical collaboration in various branches of the illegal organization; we had not yet had the time or opportunity to become friends.

At most we knew each other’s social origins and family situation, because of the inevitable repercussions these things have on the complicated circumstances of life outside the law.

Why, then, did that evening’s casual encounter make such a deep impression on my memory?

The dentist happened to remark: “I passed La Scala this afternoon. There was a big crowd queuing up to buy tickets for the next concert. I stopped a while to look at them and got the clear impression of a procession of madmen.”

“Why madmen?” asked the Spanish tourist. “Is music madness, in your opinion?” “Not in normal circumstances,” admitted the dentist. “But in times like these, how can people amuse themselves with music? They must really be maniacs.”

“Music isn’t always a mere amusement,” observed the Spanish tourist. “If the music maniacs could see us now, and hear who we are and what we’re doing,” added the painter, “they in their turn would almost certainly consider us mad. It isn’t so easy to discover who the really mad people are; that’s one of the most difficult of sciences.”

The dentist did not like the turn the conversation was taking.  “One can t risk one’s life and liberty as we are doing,” he replied severely, “and then reason like someone who’s above the struggle.”

“You can throw yourself into the struggle,” replied the painter, “and kick and hit out at your opponent, but it’s not absolutely necessary to butt him. Isn’t it better to reserve your head for other uses?” “Isn’t our struggle a struggle of ideas?” asked the Spanish tourist. “Doesn’t it involve your head?”

“It involves my head, of course, but not my eyes,” the painter explained with a smile. “In other words,” he added, “I’d like to go on seeing things with my own eyes.”

“I don’t understand,” declared the dentist. “The risk you run by staying with us seems to me very much out of proportion to the small amount of work you do.”

There was an embarrassing pause. Through the window, we could see three trucks full of militiamen passing on the main road. Our hostess closed the shutters and gave us some excellent coffee.

“In our era, all roads lead to Communism,” said the Spanish tourist, to restore harmony among his comrades. “But we can’t all be Communists in the same way.”

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.