Pietro Tresso (1893-1943) was a leading member of the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) and one of the first Italian Trotskyists.
Initially a member of the “maximalist” (left-wing) current of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), Tresso was accused in 1917 of distributing documents from the anti-war Zimmerwald Conference. He was acquitted and became a PSI councillor in Schio, north-east Italy, editing the maximalist newspaper El Visentin.
Tresso joined the PCd’I in January 1921. That year he was attacked by fascists and moved to Berlin. He began contributing to the publications of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), or Profintern, the body established by the Communist International to co-ordinate communist work in the trade unions.
Tresso returned to Italy and in 1926 was elected to the PCd’I central committee. From 1928 the Communist International was arguing that the world had entered a “new phase of revolutionary upsurge”, a “Third Period”. In July 1929 the CI dropped the united front in favour of the ultra-left line that social democrats were to be considered “social fascists”.
Trotsky’s critique of the “Third Period” was shared by members of the Central Committee of the PCd’I, including Tresso, Alfonso Leonetti and Paolo Ravazzoli.
However, the group lacked the political coherence to launch a successful faction fight in the party and they raised no dissent on the Central Committee until March 1930. The Stalinist faction, now led by Palmiro Togliatti, then removed them from their positions in the party.
The oppositionists made contact with the Trotsky’s International Left Opposition (ILO) in April 1930. They began to contribute to La Vérité, the French Trotskyist paper, and wrote a criticism of the Stalinist “Third Period” policies and an attack on the Italian majority. They also declared their affinity with the ILO, announcing the formation of the Nuova Opposizione Italiana (NOI, Italian New Opposition).
The ILO already had an Italian section, led by some followers of Amadeo Bordiga. The appearance of the Leonetti group pushed things to a break between the ILO and the Bordigists. It also provided a reason for the Stalinist majority in the PCd’I to expel the oppositionist comrades from the party in June 1930.
When Antonio Gramsci’s brother Gennaro visited him in jail the next month, Antonio Gramsci said that he thought the oppositionists had been right.
The Italian oppositionists were, in fact, all political émigrés living in France, because of the repressive conditions in Mussolini’s Italy. The five members of the NOI leading committee became members of the French section.
The French group was soon rocked by a factional disagreement between the followers of Pierre Naville and those of Raymond Molinier. Tresso sided with Molinier’s faction and drifted away from the NOI, developing disagreements with the rest of its leadership. At one point, in 1933, the NOI leadership expelled him. The International Secretariat overruled the NOI’s bureaucratic methods. Thereafter Tresso became more involved in the Ligue Communiste.
One of the tests of facing the Trotskyist organisations in this period was responding to the growth of a left current within social democracy. Trotsky urged the French section to enter the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO).
Tresso was amongst those who initially resisted this turn, eventually leaving along with Naville to found the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste. The GCI, however, later joined the SFIO and co-operated with the official French section.
When Gramsci died on 27 April 1937 it was Tresso who wrote the obituary for the French Trotskyist paper La Lutte Ouvrière, attempting to prevent Togliatti and the Stalinists in the PCd’I from “exploiting Gramsci’s personality to serve their own ends.”
On 3 September 1938 Tresso represented the Italian section, by now almost non-existent, at the founding congress of the Fourth International, and was elected to the International Executive Committee (IEC).
When the war broke out, Tresso remained in Paris. By mid-1941 the Gestapo became aware of his underground activities and he moved to the south of France. He was reluctant to leave France, but he attempted to get papers to reach Mexico with the help of his brother-in-law, Ignazio Silone.
This was unsuccessful and he resumed work in the leading committee of the French Trotskyist organisation in the French Southern Zone. In June 1942, Tresso was arrested along with several others by a special police unit sent from Vichy for the purpose of rounding up Trotskyists. He was sentenced to a ten-year term of forced labour.
The prisoners were later moved to a military prison and, after the dissolution of the French army, to Puy-en-Velay, in the Haute-Loire along with many Stalinist prisoners, with whom relations were hostile. In October 1943, on the third attempt, all the prisoners were freed by Stalinist partisans.
Tresso became part of a band of guerrillas in the Haute-Loire department, led by the Stalinists, which was dissolved in November 1943. By the time it was reconstituted in June 1944, Tresso and three younger comrades had disappeared. His death was first announced in September 1944 by the French Trotskyists’ underground newspaper, although no mention was made of the circumstances.
After 1944, Tresso’s companion Debora Seidenfeld learned from Paul Schmierer, a left-wing doctor associated with the PSOP and the POUM, that he had knowledge of Tresso from another partisan in the same region.
His source was the historian Marc Bloch, who was executed by the Gestapo near Lyons in June 1944. According to Bloch, Tresso “continued to be regarded as a suspect man and treated as a prisoner” by the Stalinists and he was forced to do hard labour.
It is beyond doubt that Tresso and his three comrades were executed by the Stalinists when the band of guerrillas was initially dissolved. Although he subsequently denied all knowledge of events, Théodore Vial, a commander of the unit who later became a member of the French Communist Party (PCF) Central Committee, told local police in 1945 that: “They were Trotskyists. They were executed as traitors. The local chief of police of the time knew all that.”
Controversy has raged in Italy about the case, especially after the publication of a biography of Tresso by Alfredo Azzaroni.
There were challenges to Togliatti, who as PCd’I leader, resident in Moscow until February 1944, was likely to have known about the liquidation of French Trotskyists. In 1978, a special edition of the far-left newspaper Lotta Continua was dedicated to the 35th anniversary of Tresso’s death.
As Pierre Naville has written: “The memory of the Trotskyist militant Pietro Tresso does not belong either to his assassins or to their direct or indirect accomplices. It belongs to the working people, to the young workers and peasants of Italy.
“Let the best amongst them rise and take once more the banner that Tresso upheld high for his whole life! It is in this way, and only in this way, that justice will be done to him.”