They know what the soil means
Experiencing the future, while existing in the present-- is this what utopians fail to understand about social progress in the class struggle?
Roberto Rossellini once said, “I am not a pessimist; to perceive evil where it exists is, in my opinion, a form of optimism.”— one of his best-known works is the film Rome Open City filmed secretly during the height of the influence of the Italian fascists, released in 1945. The film centers around the depiction of an Italian underground resistance cell in what has become an “open city”; a place that will not be defended, and officially will not resist, in the event of an invasion— in this case, by the Nazis, seeking to squash what is left of the communist and leftist element that lingered after the fascists came to power.
The film has one of many themes that I believe is most worth introspecting, and this is technically a spoiler:
Towards end of the film, a scene depicts the execution of Don Pietro, a priest who has refused to flip on the resistance to save his own life, at the hands of a firing squad. However, when set to do so, some of the shooters amongst the Italians tasked with this miss their shots, and it becomes clear they, either, won’t shoot a priest, on some level empathize with the resistance, or both, a German SS officer executes Pietro himself. Rossellini is correct that he is fundamentally an optimist; using that lens on optimism, one can conclude that in their refusal to carryout the order at the behest of a foreign leader against their own people, that the resistance has legitimacy, or that their faith is a bridge between themselves and an ideological opponent, or whatever the case may be, but it demonstrates what had become a reality within the Axis powers even as soon as 1943 when the war wasn’t yet a total lost cause.
The Nazi occupational leadership structure in newly occupied regions, particularly those run by Fascists, was to install their own loyalists, and only locally prominent fascists as a last resort (an example is in Hungary)— the usurpation of a misguided nationalist movement losing to one with an imperial ambition. This scene fundamentally depicts that moment; a dawning for those on the ground of the reality that is the mirror image of how fascism and Nazism took hold in the first place. In Germany, for example, in the Bavarian SSR, the communist government was only toppled and paved the way for Nazi leadership because what-now-may-be-called-neoliberal resistance to socialist policy from social democratic groups found the latter more tolerable than the former, but found their own influence to prevent what came over the next decade severely curtailed, and this was a lesson learned in Italy as well.
The film has many jarring, uncomfortable moments where solidarity is tested, but ultimately does not break in the face of a demonstrably violent police state, and only strengthens the resolve of those within the resistance; something that results in this showdown at the firing squad where, ultimately, Pietro, of course, dies, but soldarity grew, and the cause emboldened.
Salvador Allende, the late deposed democratically-elected leader of Chile, several decades later before his own death as the result of an imperialist-backed coup in 1973 cites Rome Open City as an influence on his own government, which makes a lot of sense; Rossellini wasn’t making a historical document, but a recreation of that moment in history, with an eye on how those who would follow should learn from it. This was omnipresent a theme in Allende’s own government; determined not to experience authoritarian creep as a result of navigating out of the strife necessitating communism in places such as the USSR, Allende’s response in the form of programs like Cybersyn speak to that desire to evaluate the present and the past where it applies, through the lens of the future. The interesting thing: it worked, and really well, and the government became more progressive, right up until the coup that would install a military dictator in the form of Pinochet following Allende’s suicide.
Allende says, in the beginning of an interview with Rossellini, “The presence of a man like you, here, give us great satisfaction because you, with your experience, are in a position to realize the usefulness of the struggle we’re engaged in, and the reasons for this battle of ours.” The message of Open City, momentarily, seems lost on Rossellini himself, at one point in the interview, and he asks Allende about why he has not locked out his opposition from the media, why the old establishment was left so prominent, to which Allende responds, “I’d like to remind you in the first place, Mr. Rossellini, that I, as an active member of the People’s Party, have always had the people’s struggle at heart—and their struggle here in Chile has been hard, very hard, for many years.”
This exchange is the forward-facing interpretation of the film’s ideals— delineating patriotism from nationalism, in choosing socialism as a mechanism for a more stronger, loving world, means accepting a core tenent of social justice; no one is free until everyone is. This is not always possible, but in Chile, at this point in time, it felt like it could have been, as Allende explains, as a function of his expression of socialism:
“During 1951, I went all over the country, not with any electoral hopes, but with the aim of telling the people about the great possibilities that lay ahead if the parties of the working class united with the parties of the lower middle classes…Let’s use an expression that may not be a political one, but it’s clear: the crop reaped by the victory was sown many years ago. As the government in power today, we are thinking of using more progressive methods such as the radio and the television, but we intend to keep up that “man-to-man” contact with the people. I can give you an example to explain what I mean: on Monday last week I spoke to the Young People at the First Convention of Popular Unity Youth; on Tuesday I spoke at CEPAL where I talked about Chile’s position, emphasizing once again the difference between the industrial areas and those in the process of being developed. That same day I had to speak to the new doctors, the ones who have got their degree this year; the next day I gave a lesson in technical training shall we say—this is the nearest term that applies—at that State Technical University; the day after—a reunion at the Santiago garrison with my two thousand Army supporters and the Commander in Chief of the Barracks’ Delegations; there were high officers, officers, non-commissioned officers and troops. And the day after that—the first of May—I spoke from the grandstand.”
Later in this interview, Rossellini makes a point about the 1958 election (which Allende’s party did not carry) being an effective agent of the long-tail of change for such a social movement, and one that did not move right-ward to cater to a larger share of the establishment base, with goals considered radical, but not a failure: “They said, if I have been correctly informed, that the retiring President Carlos Ibáñez was prepared if requested to oppose his candidature to Alessandri’s. You yourself and all you Socialists and Communists who form the Government today, opted for absolute legality, accepted the results of the Elections with tact, and calmed down the masses in revolt.” This is the path to legitimacy as Allende sees it, and albeit not as dire as Pietro’s situation, was a moment that began the basis of an effective enough coalition to take power inside of a decade and a half: “If we had thrown people into the struggle, there would have been violent repression. It is true, although, that President Ibáñez personally expressed his sympathy for my candidature but he never intervened, nor gave me any decisive support. I did not ask him, of course. And there existed absolutely no concrete possibilities. Then, yes, I think we displayed political conscience. The same evening, I told the workers we had lost a battle but not the war. We had to keep on preparing. I think this precedent, amongst others, is the one that gives me my “moral authority,” that authority which makes the people believe me to be a realistic politician and one that maintains his promises.”
The point of all of this is, of course, to say that Rossellini could not anticipate how his message would be received, implemented, or even if it would be understood, but their exchange demonstrates the richness of that open-endedness with regard to how the future would play out. It would turn out, however, that modernity didn’t hobble the idealism of Allende’s goals, but empowered it. I mentioned Cybersyn earlier, and it’s in deed, the embodiment of these ideals: rather than creating a surveillance apparatus of the sort we would become familiar with in the 2010’s in the United States, this “nervous system” was intended, and did so successfully on multiple occasions, to freely distribute information of varying complexity and connect workers over large distances, as well as actively engaging them in participation in this system, which also functioned as a simulator for various types of crises. This would ultimately reflect what Allende tells Rossellini in this interview about his intentions with technology, but an intentionality that puts its value to the people first.
A common theme I’ve observed in my own research about world historical revolutions, and the writings produced during such times, is that often the economic conditions that worsen leading to a revolution, if they go denied and opposition marginalized, the decision gets made for the ruling class in the form of a legitimacy crisis; sometimes this is simply forcing new elections, other times it’s a revolution, and more and more often in recent history, it’s a coup by another power, with or without an actual legitimacy crisis (thus perpetuating this cycle). Allende, himself, in this interview, describes this phenomenon as well, “I think what has happened in South America [the proliferation of socialist movements in response to the proliferation of hyper-capitalism, with or without the influence of foreign capitalist interference— i.e. with copper in Chile] is directly linked to the concentration of capital, basically in industrial countries. We define imperialism as the extreme of capitalism.” Consider the examples of England, France, and Russia— their respective revolutions were marked by similar patterns in expectations on the part of the citizenry in exchange for the legitimacy demanded by the state, and as the disparity between the expectations and reality grew (and the resulting disparity between rich and poor, elite and worker, etc.) the more intense that response becomes; the decision, simply put, gets made for the state and they are deposed to some degree or another for a more legitimate government (even if they are restored to some extent, as was the case in France and England). Communism, as Marx explains (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), is the extreme outcome when extreme capitalism leaves no other options to perpetuate itself; it is the outcome, a consequence, and a natural one at that, that seeks to correct for this imbalance. Chile, perhaps because the disparity was different, was able to make the calculus work, but the arc of a Communist nation like the Soviet Union is a more complex one as a result of this, and its own path to popular social democratic ideals amongst the average citizen is, likewise, complex.
Like Allende posits, however, tightening controls to the common citizen’s means of information, etc. produces reactionaries, as it did in the Soviet Union in the form of the 1991 coup, for example, which produced even more emboldened reactionaries like Putin, who perhaps as a function of their cultural memory, embodies historial Russian military strongmen more than his predecessor ever did (and in fact required the help of the CIA to attempt the coup in the first place, shattering the veneer of this as a popular resistance to Communism— it was popular, but not populist). There are, for example, and as Keith Gessen details in his novel A Terrible Country, an active leftist element that, by no means, exists on the fringe; he, himself, describes himself as a Democratic Socialist, but in the novel, his protagonist Andrei consorts with all manner of leftist, and even amongst the elderly, who have lived through the Soviet-era well into this post-capitalist autocracy, there is a sense of imbalance, that had there been some mitigating factor, their way of life could have flourished in a way the renewed wave of wealth disparity, without the social safety nets of past years, in the new millennium could never.
Gessen, in the novel, describes his grandmother’s apartment, a “Stalin apartment” as now being centrally located in a newly re-developed, overpriced (we might even call it similar to gentrification, in the United States) district for the elite to dine while the enviable position of selling the apartment looms for Andrei’s brother who owns the unit now. He views the contrasts between how his neighbors live, and the influence wielded by the wealthy, the authority of the police, even how his own brother is vaguely alluded to as being a criminal through some function of his owning a chain of gas stations, against the backdrop of growing civil unrest in the name of progressivism— it’s a lens on the future of capitalist society, through the narration of the (then) present. A society that has not yet found the balance, because the moving pieces are so numerous and their relations so complicated; is this indicative of the extremity of the original disparity continuing to regulate itself, indicative of one failed economic ideology over another in perpetuity, or simply just how things are in a modern globalized society (Russia’s, our own, etc.) that isn’t yet capable of looking ahead?
The fundamental question of all of these things is whether or not the populace knowing what it wants and needs can, or ever really should, take a sideline to what is being imposed for the good of the ruling class; this could be a foreign occupying force, as it was for even the fascist collaborators in Rome Open City (the SS, for example), the influence of wealthy elites over the conditions of the working poor as it was for Allende, or simply the will of the state, as it was for Andrei and his friends in post-millennial Moscow in the Gessen novel.
Rossellini asks of Allende, “…You made an appeal to popular conscience to try and fully realize that the road that leads to the goals you have in mind is long and difficult. You said that you did not want to admit a ‘working aristocracy’— Would you be kind enough to explain this concept?”
“I said in effect that in order to guarantee the successful fulfillment of the revolution in Chile, it is fundamental that the workers intensify their activities: workers at all levels… we have created a national council: local, sectional and provincial councils have been created, based on this national counsel. So it is the peasants (I refer to the workers of the land) together with the small proprietors and state technical experts, who draw up production plans as well as establishing the exact agricultural areas to be taken over by the state. To be clearer—the peasants participate directly—they are the ones to make the soil produce, to plough the furrows, to sow the seeds. Lastly, they are the ones who, although not having completed the first year of elementary schooling, possess what we might class real ‘affection’ and bond with the land” responds Allende, “they know what [the] soil means.”
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
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