An interview with Ignazio Silone (1939)
In the event of a war between Italy and France, which country would you favour?
What do you mean?
The world is now divided into two great fronts: one composed of the conservatives, that is, of the democracies or other partisans of collective security; the other composed of the revisionists or fascists. Neither of these two fronts is capable of assuring peace or of solving the economic and political problems now confronting the world.
Real peace depends today on the rapidity with which a third front is created, on the rapidity with which revolutionary workers all over the world retain their political autonomy and resume the struggle to overthrow capitalism. This third front did once actually exist in the form of a revolutionary Russia and of militant workers’ parties elsewhere, but at present it exists only in potentiality.
Do you, as an anti-fascist, look forward to, and favour, a war as the quickest means of overthrowing the present regime in Italy?
Personally, I do not share the opinions of many of my fellow political emigres. A “liberty” brought to Italy and Germany by foreign armies would be nothing less than disastrous. However, I do not deny that it would be easier to create revolutionary situations in Italy and Germany during a war, but these situations would have to be exploited by Italian and German revolutionaries themselves, and by no one else.
What in the light of their relations to political parties, do you think should be the role of revolutionary writers in the present situation?
Although until 1930 I was a member of the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party, at present I do not belong to any political organisation. I do, however, consider myself an anti-fascist partisan in the civil war that is now being waged more or less throughout the world.
As an anti-fascist partisan, I believe, that the true function: of the revolutionary writer today is to herald and, so to speak, to represent in its ideal stab that third front to which I just offerred. This means that the revolutionary writer must risk isolation.
For example, there are many writers who have only a superficial understanding of the guestions involved in the “collective security” policy, precisely because they believe the Stalinist parties to represent truly the interests of the masses and precisely because they fear the isolation that would result from a break with Stalinism. But today it is necessary to have the courage to stand alone, to risk hearing oneself called fascist agent, Hitler spy, and so forth, and to persist nevertheless in one’s course. The third front, existing as yet only in an ideal state, must be kept pure as an ideal. And for that too, courage is required.
The reactionary trend of our epoch is shown precisely by the alliance of such a “third front.” They try to force on us the dilemma: status quo or regression? Most of the progressive forces have already accepted this Hobson’s choice. They are content to struggle to preserve the existing order, lest they fall under the fascist yoke.
One thing I must make clear at the outset: I think it would be a serious mistake to put bourgeois democracy and fascism on the same level, in view of the great differences between these two forms of political organisation. The Stalinists, who until 1934 denied the existence of any such differences and who fought against social-democracy and liberal democracy as the equivalent of fascism these gentlemen in actuality made possible Hitler’s victory.
But it would also be a mistake, through fear of fascism, to turn conservative. Fascism’s power, its mass appeal, its contagious influence, all are due to the fact that fascism means false solutions, easy solutions, ersatz solutions but, all the same, solutions of the real problems of our time. We can conquer fascism only by proposing and carrying out other solutions — just, humane, progressive solutions of these same problems.
But conservative democracy denies the existence of these problems. She does not see them does now wish to see them, is unable to see them. That is why, in spite of her military strength, her material wealth and her monopoly of raw materials, when conservative democracy is brought face to face with fascism, she is forced back onto the defensive. That is why she has until now been beaten by fascism. That is why she is weak.
The democrats are right when they call the Nazi “abolition of unemployment” fictitious, unstable and a stop gap measure, but their criticism will be more convincing when they themselves find and carry out a healthy and permanent solution of that same problem.
It is true that fascist nationalism conflicts with the peaceful collaboration of all peoples which is a historical necessity, now that the economic integration of the globe has laid the foundation for a progressive world unity. But the Versailles system is also based on nationalism, it too is opposed to historical development, and so it cannot be set up as an effective barrier against fascism.
When the socialists, with the best possible anti-fascist intentions, renounce their own program, put their own theories in moth balls, and accept the negative positions of conservative democracy, they think they are doing their bit in the struggle to crush fascism. Actually, they leave to fascism the distinction of alone daring to bring forward in public certain problems, thus driving into the fascists’ arms thousands of workers who will not accept the status quo.
In short, I see the struggle against fascism as primarily not a military but a political and social question. We anti-fascists been beaten by the fascists in the political and social spheres; it is cheap to seek revenge in the military sphere. War will not make an end of fascism. It is even probable that the first result of war will be the fascisation of the democratic countries.
But don’t you think the military defeat of Hitler and Mussolini will inevitably mean the end of their regime.
I think that the establishment of a truly free regime in Italy and Germany depends entirely on the Italian and German people. If they cannot free themselves no one else can free them. Freedom cannot come as a gift from a foreign army: to pay for liberty, a people must dig down deep into its own pocket.
Obviously, a war can produce certain favourable conditions for revolution. The same conditions can also be produced by cholera, earthquake, famine. But the advocates of liberty have never been the advocates of cholera, nor of earthquakes or of famine, and they cannot any more be the advocates of war, even though they stand to profit by favourable conditions which it may produce. The worst misfortune which could happen to German socialism which achieved power in 1918 under such unfortunate circumstances would be for it to regain power after the next military defeat of Germany and as a natural result of the defeat. Nothing worse could happen to socialism than to become synonymous with national defeat.
When you speak of liberty, do you mean socialist liberty?
Yes, I think of socialism as an element from now on indispensable to a regime of real freedom - that is to say, of liberties that are concrete and actual, not formal And “constitutional”. Big business and political liberty have become incompatible.
But I do not see liberty as the necessary, natural and predestined consequence of socialism: I do not consider economics, politics and culture to be as mechanically interrelated as many Marxists seem to. Just as we have very different political regimes growing from the common soil of capitalist production, so too Russia warns us that, on the base of state socialist production, there can arise a culture of cannibals, a culture much inferior to the culture which bourgeois democracy had created.
Socialism rids us of one enemy of human liberty, but it can also introduce new ones, unknown to past history. And there is no formula which can protect us from these new enemies, no automatic mechanism, no constitutional guarantees. There is nothing, that is, which can force men to be free. Fortunately! Perhaps after I have finished writing the novel I am working on now I will try to write a “School of Liberty” as a sequel to the School of Dictators you already know.
What is your opinion of contemporary left wing literature?
Left wing literature? You must admit that the expression is ambiguous. One should reserve the adjectives “left”, “right”, “centre” and their nuances for political parties and their propaganda.
However. I understand what you are referring to. There are a few great left-wing writers and there is a left-wing literary industry, nourished by, a left-wing literary-philistinism which has become especially abundant and vulgar since the Kremlin discovered literature as “instrumentum regni.”
Stalinism is really the horn-of-plenty of this literature. Writers find themselves flattered in all their vague aspirations and, into the bargain, they risk nothing. In a society where they were accustomed to being considered merely a luxury, they are now given the illusion of playing a leading role. They are called together in congresses, they sign appeals, they are “popularised”. All that is asked of them is that they approve everything the Party does - or at least that they do not disapprove in public. Nothing more!
There are also a good many writers, essentially bourgeois and reactionary in the quality of their writing who conform to the etiquette of anti-fascism; Their hostility to fascism has this particular quality; they address themselves always to far distant regimes and have not a word to say about fascism and reaction in their own country. Truly, a platonic and tactful anti-fascism.
Their socialist convictions are also strictly export commodities: these writers are partisans of socialism in Russia but not in their own country. They are most eloquent about the victorious revolutions of the past - 1789, 1848, etc. - but are silent on the revolutionary tasks of our own epoch. Already this whole left-wing literary industry is going to pieces as a result of the collapse of “popular front” politics.
The true left wing writers are distinguished by characteristics the very opposite of those I have just described. They are first of all and above all, opposed to fascism and reaction in their own country. They feel themselves bound in sympathy, first and foremost, with the working class and peasantry of their own country, and, through them, with the workers of every country in the world. They submit to no discipline beyond what every honest conscience and sincere thought provides of itself. And so, they will tell the truth to everyone, at all times, to enemies and to friends, even when the friends do not want to hear disagreeable truths.