Reading Communism: Italy, Berenguer, and Me
Issue # 45 , October 1999
Several weeks after the end of the war in Kosovo, I picked up a copy of the Sunday New York Times and counted the word "communist" at least nine separate times. The word was always used in reference to how much better things are now that the Soviet Union is no more and global capitalism has shown that it provides better incentives for income redistribution than communism does. Curiously enough, a couple of articles went so far as to compare the superiority of everyday life in capitalist countries to the conditions that prevail under communist circumstances in the present tense. Some of the writers spoke with such a sense of ongoing conflict in their voices that it appeared as though the Cold War were still in progress.
When I took notice of this, I started to feel a little disconcerted. I asked myself whether these journalists really knew what they were talking about, or whether they were living out some kind of masochistic fantasy about what it must have been like to live in a real totalitarian society. But I couldn't believe that any of these writers really knew what they were talking about in a first-hand manner. My immediate impulse was to conjecture that that their continuing obsession with communism was symptomatic of the depressing after-effects of decades of wartime propaganda. Never having witnessed the real thing, but having been radically indoctrinated by forty years of Cold War ideology, they had instinctively forced themselves to live out what it must have been like to exist on the other side of the fence.
But then something strange popped into my head. What if these hyperbolic cranks, despite their obvious gloating, were actually working to keep something alive by continuously invoking it's passing? Remembrance has a funny way of doing that, even if we're simply keeping an idea in our heads in order to remind ourselves of what we have fortunately never had to experience. I still can't help but think that the ongoing preoccupation with the failures of communism speaks to how molded we all were by the Cold War. It seems that the rhetoric of anti-communism sunk so thoroughly into our psyches that we still can't think about politics without it. Even if, like most Americans, we only experienced communism as a fictional construct created by the mass media.
Bringing It All Back Home
Over the years, I've thought long and hard about where my intimacy with communism began. While I could cite a million instances, I think the most prescient one was the part of my childhood that I spent in Italy. After my mother died in 1975, my father and I had moved to Genoa to close his office and move back home to Israel. Every morning we'd leave the albergo where we stayed, go buy a copy of Italy's biggest daily, Corriere Della Serra, and head off to a café to drink tea and eat croissants on our meager savings. Though Elie was not exactly fluent in Italian, his knowledge of the language was strong enough to get him through a paper. But I did not know how to read, so he would sit there every morning and translate all the articles for me, reading aloud, in his neo-Victorian British military English, the pieces that interested him the most.
Elie's favorite articles were about politics. What particularly concerned him was party politics, judging from what he first translated for me. Granted, there was very little else to read about in Italian papers at the time. 1975 was the height of the activities of Italy's leftist terrorist groups like the Brigada Rossa. Bombs were going off and politicians were getting kidnapped. Elie would routinely read me articles about these events, taking the time to answer my questions about the differences between Maoists and Marxist and about why there were both communist and socialist parties in the Italian parliament when it seemed to me that they were the same party. Elie would smile and laugh at such assumptions of mine, seeing in my childhood naiveté certain kinds of truths that more informed, older persons would be loathe to indulge. "The only difference between them is which Mafia clan each of these parties comes from Yoel. That's the only thing you need to remember."
After three months of performing the same morning ritual, my father became distracted, choosing to put his paper aside and write out telexes at breakfast instead of reading to me. Having nothing to do except eat my croissant and stare out the window at the pedestrians and mopeds passing by, I decided to start trying to read the newspaper myself. I could barely read anything in English, let alone Italian. The very first morning I picked up the newspaper, there was a picture of a very large, ugly man on the front page, with huge headlines surrounding his face in bold, black letters. The image was very uncomfortable to look at, so I cried out "Abba, Abba, who is this horrible man?" Elie put down his work, took the paper aside, adjusted his Henry Kissinger-like glasses, and said "Oh that's Enrique Berlinguer, the head of the Italian Communist Party."
The image of Berlinguer's ugly head has forever remained stuck in my mind. For months afterwards I fixated upon it, thinking to myself "Is that what all communists look like?" I became concerned that if I ever became a communist that I'd have to become an Italian and look like Berlinguer too. But from that point on, newspapers and communism became inseparable for me. Given how poor my reading skills would remain for the next several years, articles with the word "communist" in them were the only keys I had to unlock what I could discover about the world around me. In essence, even though I was not the slightest bit political, communism was not only my entry into the world of literacy, but also politics.
I Got the Fever
Ten years after the Cold War ended, I confess that I'm one of those people who still can't think about politics without also thinking about communism. In my perpetually juvenile eyes, all politics are communist, and newspapers always report on changes in communist politics. To this very day I still detect subtle traces of the word "communist" when I open a newspaper and find myself gravitating toward articles that incessantly invoke the 'necessary' transition to market economies, and the difficulties encountered therein. In fact, aside from reading about the latest debacles to engulf the Middle East, these articles are just about the only things I read anymore. What's even more troubling is that the further and further we move away from the Cold War, the more and more I seem to be reading about it.
I've often asked myself if I'm reading too much into things. Do I suffer from some kind of repressed trauma I experienced during the Cold War that makes me project communism onto everything I read as an adult? I wonder if I'm swimming through the wreckage of a sunken ship so vast that its parts continue to litter my own unconscious political imaginary. After all, I did become a Marxist when I was in college, and my apartment is plastered with Soviet Constructivist artwork that ex-girlfriends and bandmates have brought back for me from Russia. But all the same, I still think there's something to my fixation that transcends the need to live in a familiar, albeit passing world. It's more than just a product of my interactions with the daily news media.
Return to Sender
This all came into focus this summer when my brother David invited me to join him in Milan after a scheduled family reunion in Israel. I jumped at the opportunity, because I hadn't spent any real time in Italy since I was a child: there would finally be a chance to retrace some of my first childhood steps. After counting the change in my pockets and figuring out how I could make the trip as part of a necessary stopover en route back to San Francisco, I made my reservations and invited a friend of mine to join me. Less than two days after arriving, Samantha and I rented a car and drove all around northern Italy.
It was a difficult trip. I had a very strong personal agenda I needed to pursue. But I couldn't explain this to Samantha, because I didn't want her to feel she was an unnecessary appendage on a journey of personal exploration. So I remained tight-lipped, choosing to relate personal memories of places my family and I had lived while we cruised down the autostrada. That was, until we got to Genoa, where my navigation skills inadvertently put us in an albergo right around the corner from where my father and I had stayed twenty-four years before. As I unpacked the car and surveyed the street scene around us, I was overwhelmed with a remarkable sense of déjà vu. "So this is where it all started," I muttered to myself. "This is where it all began."
After checking into our room, I immediately sought out the café where my father first read to me. It had turned into a bakery that sold focaccia. To honor my memories, I ordered one and stood in the window, looking outside at the passersby, chewing my food in silence. Finally Samantha said, "Let's go," and we began our tour of the city. After walking several blocks, I bought a copy of the Guardian in front of a church. After slipping it into Samantha's backpack, I looked up at the soot covered, holy building in front of me and noticed a very nicely put together billboard-like ad, encouraging young people to come back to the church. I remarked to Samantha how "Photoshop" it was, faux 3-D crucifixes, pantone colors and all.
But as I looked at the ad a little more closely, I noticed that something else had been plastered on top of it. For a moment I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me and remarked that what I really needed was a decent pair of glasses. However, on closer inspection I realized that I wasn't hallucinating, that it definitely was real. Someone had pasted a programmatic statement denouncing organized religion on top of the revival ad. This statement and detailed the party's positions, replete with a quote from Marx and Engels' German Ideology. Right there, camera obscura and all. And to top it all off, a huge sickle and hammer anchored the statement at the bottom, together with the logo for what was left of Berlinguer's old organization, the Refounded Communist Party. I was stupified. "Can you believe that," I yelled to Samantha. "It's the best billboard jamming I've ever seen!" Samantha groaned and said "Come on, Joel, it's not that exciting." Deeply satisfied, I shut up, jumped up in the air, and continued with our walk in search of some garden Samantha had read about in the Michelin guide, hoping we could arrive there before closing time. "Damn," I thought to myself, "Maybe I'm not so insane after all."
Hang a Leftist
The next morning we packed our bags and debated whether to return to Milan or head a little further north, perhaps to Torino. We couldn't decide. Samantha insisted that we explore the central plain in between Genoa and Milano, and I agreed, certain we'd figure something out. Before we left the hotel, I asked the concierge for directions on the best route out of town. He gave me a map and showed me the way. "You take a left, he said, and get on to Via Antonio Gramsci. The turn-off for the autostrada will then be on your immediate left.." As I left the hotel for the car I laughed aloud and said "Via Gramsci, eh? That's awesome! I can't wait to tell Samantha." But Samantha hadn't read or even heard of Gramsci before, so it didn't mean that much to her that we were taking a left turn off of a street named after one of the leading leftist intellectuals of the twentieth century. Not only a leftist mind you, but the founder of the Italian Communist Party. I thought about my friend Charlie back in Berkeley, and laughed as I recalled the cheesy phrase that we invoke whenever we go driving together: "Hang a Leftist." I was incredibly happy.
Samantha flew back to San Francisco the next morning. After saying good-bye to her, I immediately went and bought myself a copy of the Herald Tribune, and went and sat in a café with the intention of spending my last day in Italy lazing around in the heat, drinking coffee and reading foreign newspapers. Not that the Herald Tribune is all that foreign, but it has started to print English translations of articles from the biggest daily of whatever European country in which it is being sold, so I knew there'd be something from an Italian paper in it.
After getting through a terribly annoying "See, I told you so," essay by Francis Fukuyama, about how his predictions that State Socialism would be overwhelmed by the forces of the free market and liberal democracy had finally come true, I proceeded to the translated edition of the day's Corriere Della Serra. On the front page was a picture of the current Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema. The accompanying article focused on the fact that this former communist was in charge of overseeing the dismantling of the Italian welfare state. It referred to how the trade unions and more hard-line communists in his governing coalition disagreed not only with the government's policies, but also with its desire to cut Italy's generous state pension plan. Not surprisingly, the piece portrayed D'Alema as a forward-thinking post-leftist in the tradition of such reformers as Britain's Tony Blair and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder, while painting his coalition partners as provincial leftist anachronisms trying to buck the forward-surging tide of world history.
After reading this piece, I chuckled to myself and reflected on the irony that, the first time that I read something from this newspaper in twenty-four years, there was another front-page article dealing with communism. I cracked a huge smile, ordered myself another cappuccino, and proceeded to the next page, feeling entirely vindicated. But I was not prepared for what I was about to read. Two pages in to the paper was a feature on the state of contemporary Italian health care. The article began, almost innocuously, with a story about how one of the worst aspects of life in the former Soviet Union was how one in every five babies born in a state hospital died of an infection due to the unsanitary conditions that prevailed under communist health care. Then the author proceeded to argue that the same kind of problems endemic to Soviet hospitals pervade the Italian state health care system today. Despite the death of communism, the author argued, its negative legacies still continue to haunt us, if not in form then at least in terms of content.
When I read that, I just had to put the newspaper down. Twenty four years, it seemed, and everything had come full circle. A circle which not only affirmed the particularity of my communist-saturated imaginary — the product of my time in Italy, of my relationship with my father — but which also helped to explain why so many other people are as fixated on that dreaded red ghost as I am. For anyone who grew up during the Cold War, the experience of communism was crucially formative. It didn't matter whether this experience was concrete, because even those of us who only encountered communism through the news defined ourselves in relation to it. Communism shaped who we would become as adults. When I was learning to read, communism was everywhere. So it should come as no surprise that my preoccupation with the word is less strange than it once seemed. My history is also a collective history. In the end, the nostalgic voyeurism of pro-capitalist scribes is rooted in the same feelings that drove me back to Italy. The difference is in how we cope with them. Instead of unconsciously reading communism into the "post-communist" world, I'm once again teaching myself to read. Only this time it's not the words on the page that I'm puzzling over, but how I learned to read them.
Joel Schalit has been a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team since 1994. In his not-so-spare time, he writes his dissertation, co-edits the Chicago-based magazine Punk Planet, and runs the Seattle indie label Kolazhnikov, whose latest release, the Keep The Faith Baby EP, features Joel's band the Christal Methodists and Team 1200's DJ Masa. You can reach him at email@example.com.