Party Like It’s 1969

I was reading The Tailor of Ulm this weekend. It’s Lucio Magri’s history of the Italian Communist Party, a party that was for many years one of the bright spots on the Western left. The topic may seem anachronistic, but it struck me as relevant.

With the communist movement long dead and Italian politics vacillating between the dry and technocratic and the bombastic and corrupt, that’s an odd thing to say. But the history of the PCI is the history of a vibrant and deeply political organization that in a few short decades embedded itself within the Italian working class, attempting to chart a new course between Stalinism and social democracy. Its premature disappearance left that class in disarray. And today, Italy’s anti-austerity movement is as weak and scattered as our own.

So Rome inspired no one at Zuccotti. Unlike, say, Athens. In Greece, the far left has come close to leading a governing coalition and a radical extra-parliamentary movement has been fighting for years to stave off a European Central Bank austerity package.

But it goes unnoticed that the Left’s rise in Greece is partially the result of a unique history. Almost alone in Europe, Greece’s unapologetically Stalinist Communist Party and its Eurocommunist splinters clung to life after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This tradition of working class organization, even in its ossified “Party” form, has fueled eclectic protests that make Occupy look like a tea party. Or the Tea Party.

“Eclectic” and “ossified” seem like they don’t belong together. Today, the Old Left is invoked as a convenient foil: humorless, militaristic, rigidly holding onto a stale ideology. It’s a critique that has roots in the New Left. But the revolution danced before Emma Goldman, much less Abbie Hoffman.

As Magri explains, the Italian Communist Party incubated a social movement and a real community:

In the evening you went to a meeting on your bicycle or moped, where you would discuss the newspaper articles or membership campaigns; then you came back late to eat a plate of tripe or have a drink or two at the cafe attached to the House of Labor.

The web of solidarity made it possible for the unemployed to get by with no income and to feel a sense of belonging and power, whatever their personal ability or status. It was similar to the way the early German Social Democratic Party earned the loyalty of workers by filling the holes in the Bismarckian welfare state. Late night dances and sporting events were just as important as propagandizing.

So you have this weird dicothomy between a Party-centric social movement doing something plenty of anarchists are good at — the food co-ops and urban gardens stuff — in the grassroots, just on a mass scale, while still being grey and bureaucratic up top.