June 10th, 2020
It can’t be denied that Ravenna is full of Christian history. With its impressive basilicas and connection to Dante, the city can entice the fascination of people coming from all faiths; while its past religiosity certainly contributes to shaping many attitudes and characters all around, it’s the communist modesty which really provides that simple charm so rarely found in other cities, especially those with eight UNESCO World Heritage to their name—in this case, all of them Christian, with the exception of the Masoleum of Galla Placidia (where she isn’t actually buried), and the Masoleum of Theodoric (who’s no longer there).
While the Christian monuments have remained, memories of how Italy was once home to the largest communist party in the West have all been forgotten; since many of its members had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, this combat experience helped them become, according to UM-Ann Arbor professor, Dario Gaggio, “the best-organized anti-Fascist force during the Second World War.” Communists held substantial power in several regions, and Emilia-Romagna was one of the most notable in that regard. Modena, for example, had an uninterrupted stretch of communist mayors from 1946 to 1992. One of the longest streets in Bologna is called Stalingrado while Ravenna has its own unique way of paying tribute to the Communist past.
The first example is at Piazza Ugo La Malfa, where this large portrait of Che Guevarra can still be found.
I tried searching the area for any kind of information about the artist but wasn’t able to find anything; after returning home and digging on the internet for a bit, I discovered that the art was done by a group of Cuban students from the Escuela de Arte of Trinidad in collaboration with the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna; this particular piece is based on the famous photograph by Alberto Korda, who also photographed the revolutionary leader on other occasions. Sadly, the murals were vandalized by fascists at some point and required extensive cleaning, proving that perhaps—now more than ever—we need to be vigilant about the rise of right-wing extremism.
In any case, Che Guevara is one of the most interesting figures to have emerged in the twentieth century. Born on the 14th of June, 1928, he was the oldest of five children raised in a middle-class Argentine family of Spanish origin; his grandmother, Ana Lynch, was a descendant of Patrick Lynch, an Irish immigrant who settled in Rio de la Plata when it was still a governate of the Spanish Empire, now modern-day Argentina.
Already as a young child, Guevara had a propensity for restlessness, according to his father, Don Ernesto: “In order to understand how my son became Major Che, one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, and what led him into the Bolivian mountains, we have to look into the past and find out something about our family ancestors. The first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels, the Spanish conquistadores, and the Argentinean patriots. Evidently Che inherited some of the features of our restless ancestors. There was something in his nature which drew him to distant wanderings, dangerous adventures and new ideas.” This restlessness, however, wasn’t just physical. Besides excelling in sports, Guevara also had plenty of energy for books. He was interested in poetry and literature in general. He was likewise informed about philosophy and history, according to declassified CIA reports: “Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino. He is quite well-read in Latino literature and has an appreciation of the classics from other literatures. He is intelligent and quick.” The memo continues by stating that soldiers under his command “never saw him reading Marx or any other Communist authors.” To educate his troops, he would read to them “from the works of Charles Dickens and of Alphonse Daudet, among others.” Already, the arrogance of the US is apparent—quite well read for a Latino, as if it’s some kind of miracle. Clearly, we’re dealing with an intellectual here, not a party hack ready to oblige any high-ranking official.
On a visit to the USSR, officials were equally impressed with this former doctor, who had, in fact, completed his medical studies in 1953, shortly after returning from his long motorcycle journey through the continent (these events are recounted in a 2004 biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries, based on the diaries Guevara kept during the journey). During this journey with his friend Alberto Granado, Guevara witnessed the poor working conditions of many families and how wealthy landlords exploited peasant farmers in remote rural areas. Towards the end of the journey, he began to see Latin America as a borderless land of united people and not as a fragmented continent of separate states; this change of attitude is highlighted in the movie when Che is celebrating his 24th birthday in the leper colony and makes the following speech, which I’ll do my best to paraphrase: We are a single mixed race, from Mexico to the Strait of Magellan. So, trying to free myself from any nationality, I raise a toast for Peru and for a united America. It’s not clear whether this event depicted in the film actually happened, but the fact that he held such a belief is certain.
According to Douglas Kellner, who authored the book Ernesto “Che” Guevara (World Leaders Past & Present), it was the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratic government by the United States which finally convinced Guevara that armed struggle was necessary for the liberation of Latin America. Kellner quotes Che’s wife, Hilda Gadea, who stated the following: “It was Guatemala that finally convinced him of the necessity for armed struggle, for taking initiative against imperialism.” Indeed, his experiences in Central America shaped the young revolutionary deeply. It’s precisely there Guevara realized that being a democracy won’t protect you from US imperialism. Jacobo Arbenz was democratically elected by the people and simply had the interests of his population in mind when he attempted to institute his land reforms; however, because this agenda went against the corporate interests of the US, he was swiftly removed. Guevara, thus, realized Latin America would never be able to rule the way it wanted to, even if it made this attempt democratically. It’s at this moment that he abandoned his profession and truly became a revolutionary, although it’s clearly evident that he never lost hope for returning to medicine: “When I was in Arbenz’s Guatemala, I had begun taking notes to try and assess what would be the duties of a revolutionary doctor. Then, after the United Fruit Company’s aggression, I realized one fundamental thing: To be a revolutionary doctor, you first need a revolution.” That dream would be cut short—once again at the hands of the US, when Bolivian soldiers, trained and equipped by the CIA captured and killed the revolutionary.
Across from Che’s mural at Piazza Ugo La Malfa one can see the depiction of Arrigo Baldrini, from whose portrait the Cuban flag trails. Having joined the Italian Communist Party in 1943, he became a central figure for the Italian resistance in the Romagna region. A fearless warrior, he took part in most of the liberation missions in the region. Baldrini died in Ravenna on January 22nd, 2008 at the age of 92.
Not far from Piazza Ugo La Malfa is the street named after Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1972 to 1984.
Considered the best and most popular national secretary of the party, Berlinguer distanced himself from the USSR and proceeded to govern along more ideologically moderate lines. His philosophy revolved around the Third Way, which can best be explained with the phrase “centrist socialism,” or the attempt to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics. In a book, Visions of the End of the Cold War in Europe, 1945-1990, edited by Frédéric Bozo, Laura Fasanaro writes the following: “Berlinguer used this expression to refer to a model of socialism that did not yet exist, either in the USSR or in other ‘socialist’ countries, but that would, he hoped, be implemented in Italy. This model would go beyond the Soviet model but preserve the legacy of two historical landmarks: the October revolution on the one hand, and the anti-Fascist alliance of the USSR with the Western democracies during the Second World War on the other.” Politicians like Berlinguer offer a refreshing way to look at communism from a different perspective. Whereas the US is fanatical about suppressing any debate surrounding socialism, along with preventing every politician like Bernie Sanders from seeking power, Italy, for example, has proven that a more moderate course isn’t just possible but can also offer new solutions for the ills of capitalism.
It’s certainly hypocritical that even candidates such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were more than willing to run on revolutionary platform themselves, but when Bernie Sanders attempted to institute his own innovative ideas, the two former candidates didn’t waste any time trying to discredit him, simply because the US doesn’t do socialism. Clinton claimed that “nobody likes him” and Obama promised to speak in order to stop his possible nomination.
Well, enough US bashing. Let’s return to Berlinguer; in his own words, he had realized that neither authoritarian communism nor unchecked capitalism was the answer and he wanted to find a solution: “The fact that the socialist experiments that have so far been carried out in various parts of the world do not represent an historically adequate and politically feasible solution for the West, i.e. in the high points of capitalism and hence also here in Italy, does not mean that we should abandon the objective of socialism and the struggle to build in Italy and in the other European capitalist countries a system of social and human relations superior to those produced by capitalism and its crisis. On the contrary, this makes it more urgent than ever for us to make the theoretical and practical effort so that the workers’ movement, having reached a maturity and a new phase of its history, can decisively bring to bear its constructive and innovative strength.” People like Berlinguer are further proof that the hypersensitive attitude (the kindest possible way to put it) with which the US attempts to stay away from socialism is at best ridiculous and at worst filled with the greedy desire to further empower the rich at expense of its own people. Italians, on the other hand, admired the political ability and courage of their socialist leader, recognizing his integrity and intelligence. Sanders, meanwhile, could’ve brought all the competence in the world to the table; so long as he was a socialist, however, winning an election, much less getting the nomination, was certainly an impossibility—it remains to be seen whether Biden can beat Trump. Let’s just hope Sanders won’t need to be vindicated.
Speaking of democracy fighting fascism, it’s always noteworthy to speak of Antonio Gramsci, who, like Berlinguer, is honored by the city of Ravenna with his own street.
An incredibly prolific writer, Gramsci produced over thirty notebooks, along with countless other pages of historical and philosophical writing. Born on January 22nd, 1891 in Sardinia, he was the fourth among seven brothers. As a child, he experienced health problems which would contribute to the deterioration of his condition in prison. Due to his poor health and financial situation, he abandoned his studies at the University of Turin at the age of 24; because of his involvement with a militant anti-fascist group, Gramsci was arrested in 1926. He was sentenced to five years confinement on the island of Ustica; after this, he was given an additional twenty years to be served out in Turi.
Due to his already weak physical disposition, prison didn’t take kindly to the great philosopher: In one of the introductions written for his Prison Notebooks, the following is stated: “Gramsci’s letters from prison reveal a sense of isolation that was more than simply a physical one—but compounded terribly both by political preoccupations and by anxiety about Julia [his wife]. Increasingly, Gramsci was forced back into himself. Much of the time, particularly towards the end of his stay in Turi, he was too ill even to read or write. Hunchbacked, sickly, having suffered at least three major breakdowns of his health even when he was free and able to enjoy medical attention and maintain a special diet, his years in prison were literally an eleven-year death-agony. His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food, his chronic insomnia became permanent so that he could go weeks without more than an hour or two of sleep at night; he had convulsions when he vomited blood, and suffered from headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell. It is against this background that the achievement of the Prison Notebooks should be seen.” Indeed, the ability to create original thought—then muster the willpower to actually write it down coherently—is a task that proves difficult for people in the most perfect situations; Gramsci’s situation, however, was anything but ideal.
It’s perhaps, thus, very strange how given that Gramsci was forced to endure all kinds of physical and psychological deprivations, such as hunger, isolation, pain, and despair, that the fanciest place to buy groceries should be located on a street named after him.
Coop, indeed, is where the so-called bourgeoisie go to shop; it’s like the Whole Foods of Italy, and, not only that—it’s a megacorporation, which runs the largest supermarket chain in Italy. I rarely ever shop at Coop because everything is just so much more expensive and the necessity to shop at such markets is really not necessary in Europe; the food standards are already of such a high quality that the average supermarket here is probably equivalent to your organic store in the US. The use of growth hormones in meat are banned and regulations on additives are much stricter in the EU.
In any case, we’ve gone off-track, but not so much. The ability to feed its own population has always been a problem for communist regimes. To industrialize China, Mao starved millions of people. Stalin engineered a man-made famine in Ukraine, known as Holodomor, and today considered a genocide. The Soviet famine of 1932-1933 killed a great number of people as well, but let’s not make the mistake of forgetting that even today there are over fifteen million people in the US still having trouble getting access to food (it’s so bad, the euphemism “food insecurity” is sometimes used in conjunction with hunger), or the economic policies which led to the Great Depression. Furthermore, to this day, the US remains the only power to have used nuclear weapons against another nation, and who can forget its own genocide against the Native Americans? However, things are rarely analyzed from such perspectives because the US is a democracy (meaning it can do no wrong) while the aforementioned countries are or were communists (obviously they can’t do anything right—even when they actually do); such cultural discourse (which is constructed by the West) proliferates itself through society until it becomes the dominant, normative view, which is exactly how Gramsci said power works.
Despite the hardships he endured in prison, the influential thinker managed to produce some of the greatest Marxist philosophy which is studied both in the US and in Europe alike. I encountered his ideas in classes ranging from graduate literary criticism seminars at CSULB to courses on international cooperation and development at the University of Bologna.
A founding member and eventual secretary of the Communist Party of Italy (dissolved in 1926 by Mussolini’s regime and re-established as the Italian Communist Party in 1943), Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony; its main argument is that the status quo must not always employ force to maintain its dominant position. Power and control can also be exercised by culturally engineering the desired normative behaviors that serve the interests of those in charge. In other words, institutions like the church, media, police, and even the cultural apparatus are used to create discourses that not only correspond with the views of those who wield power, but, more importantly, seek to manufacture an environment in which dissent becomes less likely.
Indeed, force can be used to suppress a revolt; however, Gramsci argues that coercion is only effective for a short time because it’s less likely to resolve the hegemon’s problem—violence can only contain unrest for some time until the pressure gives way to revolution; cultural engineering, on the other hand, manipulates society by influencing public opinion so that dissent is seen as something which is both contrary to the cultural norm (hence against the interest of society) and also perhaps unnecessary. The most effective regimes, like the US, have utilized cultural hegemony very well—although capitalism has created huge inequalities, there’s historically been very little desire on the populace’s part to change the system because of how the country has been able to successfully present its economic ideology as superior to communism.
After the Soviet Union fell, however, the US no longer has the same “enemy” to contend with; thus, in its effort to find a new “threat” in the Middle East, it has engaged in a binary civilizational discourse of our way of life (Christianity) vs their way of life (Islam) to both maintain its cultural superiority, and, naturally, at the same time plunder the oil it so desperately needs; in that sense, Trump is the complete embodiment of a nation no longer able to create a cultural discourse capable of maintaining the cultural engineering necessary to wield total power, which is why it’s now resorting to force.
Still, Gramsci argues that revolutions in developed and “democratic” cultures must be of the passive variety, meaning that transformations must be a slow struggle to change institutions from within, using counter-hegemony and alternate values. Speaking at the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Gramsci said the following: “History has spoken, and we have to know how to recognise the reality, we have to recognise that in the advanced countries the socialist revolution will not begin as easily as it did in Russia, the country of Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas, and where for a majority of the population it was a matter of indifference what kind of people lived on the periphery or what was happening there. In countries like these, starting a revolution is as easy as lifting a feather. But in a country where capitalism has developed and produced a democratic culture and organisations that involve every last person, it is absurd to imagine that the revolution can begin without proper preparation. If we fail to do that, we will destroy the socialist revolution before it begins. That is the reality.” Gramsci’s philosophy paints a very clear picture of why it’s so difficult to counter the hegemony of the US; it has achieved such a level of cultural engineering that its democracy is unquestioned; however, when one looks closer, it’s not difficult to see that a democracy in which a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose an elections isn’t a democracy; a democracy in which the rich have all the say in politics and the poor have almost none isn’t a democracy; a democracy which has occupied other countries whose people didn’t welcome the occupation isn’t a democracy; likewise, a democracy which has overthrown other democracies isn’t a democracy. The US has done all those aforementioned things, but due to its ability in utilizing a discourse that successfully justifies these actions, the populace ends up believing that the actions really are justified.
Last but not least in Communist Ravenna, is the bookstore la Feltrinelli.
Anyone familiar with publishing will immediately recognize the name as Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the legendary publisher, guerilla, and communist. Perhaps best known for first publishing Dr. Zhivago, he’s most likely the first editor to have releasing the first edition of a book in a language it wasn’t originally written in. I can think of no other publisher with that kind of feat to their name. When Boris Pasternak completed the novel and submitted it for publication, the work was rejected by Soviet censors. The manuscript was eventually smuggled out of the USSR and delivered to Feltrinelli. The novel went on to win the Nobel Prize, which, as one might imagine, didn’t make the Soviets too happy. Not surprisingly, the CIA would go on to use the novel as a weapon against the USSR, showing both their own citizens and those behind the Iron Curtain how bad life was under communism. After retiring, Nikita Khrushchev, the man in power at the time, obtained a copy of the book and changed his mind about it: “We shouldn’t have banned it. I should have read it myself. There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it.” I guess people do really change—even communists, for that matter.
The morality of Pasternak’s actions are debatable. Since he spent ten long years of his long life writing the novel, he may have deserved to see it published; at the same time, his actions led to an even greater wave of censorship and suspicion of artists in the Soviet Union. Many of Pasternak’s friends felt like he had betrayed them and made things that much more difficult. Not only had he gotten the glory and fame (which, again, he may have deserved), but, more importantly, he had created additional challenges for writers and artists in the USSR who were fighting for greater artistic freedom. Pasternak, they argued, wasn’t a real dissident because he had assumed none of the risks which come with working from the inside—trying to change the system by challenging it directly, instead of from a periphery. What’s done is done, however. The novel is now available in its original language and has been part of the Russian school curriculum for years, although this might no longer be the case.
And with that, we’ve reached the final stop of our Communist Ravenna tour. For those who prefer less ideologically extreme readings about the city of Ravenna, please do consult the free internet or even my accompanying article to the first section of the poem I wrote about the city.
Here’s to you, tovarish.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.