The story of Joe Colombo, the Mafia boss who briefly turned ethnic politician, is one of the most frightening stories I’ve come across. An instructive story, too. It says a lot about the “rebel” element in Trumpism.
Perhaps significantly, the year is 1970. In the USA there is a huge anti-Vietnam-war movement. The USA has also experienced the black civil rights movement and the black ghetto uprisings. It is a highly political period in American history.
When the gangster Joe Colombo, boss of one of the Mafia “families”, feels the pursuing FBI breathing down his neck, he reacts “politically”. He starts the “Italian-American Civil Rights League” (IACRL) to campaign against the FBl’s “harassment” of Italian-Americans!
IACRL’s message is simple and clear-cut, the lie big and direct. The Mafia does not exist. There is no such thing as the Mafia. There never was. The Mafia is a myth invented by a racist police force less concerned with justice or with fighting real criminals than with self-publicity. The FBI has invented the Mafia and thus stigmatised and smeared the entire Italian-American community.
The Mafia myth is a burden and an affliction for every Italian-American, and it is time to fight back, says the mafioso Joe Colombo. The Italian-American Civil Rights League exists, with Joe Colombo as its leading personality, to fight for justice, truth, and the Italian-American way. It slots easily into the American system of ethnic politics, and it mushrooms into a powerful movement able to get tens of thousands to demonstrate on the streets.
They boldly picket the FBI, demanding that it should stop victimising and persecuting good Italian-Americans like Joe Colombo. They demand such things as more public recognition that it was an Italian who first discovered America for Europe, Christopher Columbus. The image of the Italian-American has to be changed.
Politicians, judges, entertainers, flock to get a piece of Colombo’s action. At $10 per member, the Italian American Civil Rights League becomes a nice little earner for Joe Colombo and his Mafia friends.
The IACRL is a political force for about a year, and then one day in 1971, just as Joe Colombo is starting to speak to a big audience of thousands of demonstrating Italian-Americans, to tell them once again that the mafia does not exist, a mafia gunman shoots him in the head, blowing part of his brain away. The gunman is immediately killed by Colombo’s Mafioso bodyguards.
You see, the other Mafiosi hadn’t had Joe Colombo’s faith in the power of the big bold lie to protect them. Colombo had broken their traditional modus operandi of anonymous, background manipulation, and as little publicity as possible. They thought Colombo’s political operation would only get the FBI to intensify the heat on them. So they had him shot.
They didn’t quite kill Joe Colombo outright: he survived for seven years, incapacitated. What they did kill was the Italian American Civil Rights League.
One irony of this strange all-American tale is that what Colombo said — the mafia is a myth — was what FBI Chief J Edgar Hoover had said for decades, until the late 50s. Hoover hadn’t wanted to admit that there were criminals and a criminal network too big for the FBI to bring down.
Joe Colombo would be the basis of one of the characters in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Part 3 (1990) He had, it seems, paid a visit to the producer of the first of the three Godfather films, to threaten him out of too-close an identification of the film’s characters with their Italian background.
The story of Joe Colombo and his Italian-American Civil Rights League illustrates the ease with which politics can be faked and vast numbers of people fooled and led by their noses — the power of pseudo-political demagogy to drum up unreasoning movements around real grievances.
Marx said truly that ideas become a material force when they grip the masses. A big problem for socialists and people concerned to promote rational politics in general is that all sorts of ideas can grip the masses.
There are no political or ideological vacuums: it has to be either the ideas of the ruling class, even if in some “wild” variant like Colombo’s, or the ideas of Marxism, that prevail.
More than that: the emotion of resentment and rebellion can be hooked to many different ideas about the world in general — about what’s wrong with it and what needs to be done about that.
Democratic political processes are routinely corrupted and perverted not only by ruling-class political machines, but also by radical and pseudo-radical demagogues. Isn’t that what fascism — with its pretend anti-capitalism and its vicious scapegoating of Jews, black people, Muslims (in Britain now) and others — is all about: focusing the resentment of poor and ignorant people on nationalist and racist and cultural myths, and in binding them to the status quo by way of political mysticism and irrational leader cults?
Isn’t that what Stalinism was, with its reduction of the Marxist critique of bourgeois society to mere negativism, to “absolute anti-capitalism”, and its substitution for the democratic socialist Marxist alternative to the capitalism it criticised of advocacy for the totalitarian Russian Stalinist system?
Isn’t that what we see now in the bizarre combination by the SWP kitsch-left of Marxist critique of bourgeois society with — to put it at it mildest — softness towards Islamist clerical-fascism?
One thing the Joe Colombo episode shows is the way that the expansion of democracy has separated the techniques of mass agitation and organisation from any necessary connection with serious politics or sincerely held ideas.
This deadly decadence of politics is nowhere more plain than in America, where politics is to a serious extent a branch of show business. In the years of Tony Blair’s “presidential” premiership, Britain has taken giant strides in the wake of the USA.
When he was accused back in 1900 of exaggerating the power of socialist ideas to shape events, Lenin replied that the difference between the then Catholic trade unions of Italy and the class-conscious trade union movement of Germany was that in Italy the workers’ instinctive drive to combine together and fight for better wages and conditions had been corrupted and taken over by priests, who, naturally, brought to that workers’ movement, not the consciousness of socialists, but “the consciousness of priests”.
One and the same instinctive drive could produce either a fighting socialist working-class movement, given “the consciousness of Marxists”, or, given the consciousness of priests, a sectarian, class-collaborationist working-class-based movement. The decisive thing is the battle to make “the consciousness of Marxists” central to the labour movement and to movements of those — like many of the Italian-Americans who rallied to Colombo’s fake League — who feel themselves to be oppressed.
Examples of Lenin’s principle are very numerous. One is the emergence of the “revolutionary” Irish Republican movement, the Provisional IRA, which is now sinking into its natural place as part of the spectrum of Irish bourgeois nationalist politics.
If there had been a sizeable Marxist movement in Ireland in the late 60s, when the Provisional IRA began to emerge, the consciousness of traditional physical-force Republicans, which permeated the Northern Irish Catholic community, kept alive in legend, reminiscences, songs and popular verse, would not have dominated and shaped the Catholic revolt; and that revolt would not have entered the blind alley of the Provo-war on the Northern Irish Protestants and on Britain.
The existence and activity of a socialist group can make all the difference. The creation, education in authentic Marxism, and maintenance of such a force is the decisive immediate, practical question for serious socialists.
• Adapted from Solidarity 100, 20 October 2006