Luciana Castellina’s initiation into politics came early when, at the age of fourteen, she watched as a bodyguard whisked away Benito Mussolini’s daughter, Anna Maria, from her afternoon tennis match at the Villa Torlonia following the dictator’s arrest. Her bourgeois upbringing largely insulated the teenage Castellina from World War II, but the startling scene of watching a close, personal friend removed from her life finally brought the conflict home. It was the summer of 1943, and Il Duce had just fell from power.
The death of fascism in Italy opened up a political Pandora’s Box. Myriad parties and factions of parties sprung up across the political spectrum, competing for members, money, and votes. Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening In the Shadow of Mussollini is a chronicle, both unique and extraordinary, of Castellina’s journey–part diary, part memoir–through the complex world of 1940s Europe, a continent completely devastated by war.
Luciana Castellina has been a powerful voice of the Italian left for decades, working as a journalist and serving in both the Italian and European parliaments. She joined the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1947, was expelled in 1969 following the launch of the critical newspaper Il Manifesto, and rejoined PCI in the 1980s. Attempting to follow the various mergers and manifestations of Italy’s political parties, particularly after the USSR’s dissolution in 1991, is an exhausting exercise. Fortunately, Castellina’s book is one of an awakening to the world, rather than to politics exclusively. It is a story of identity and awareness—not just of war and bigotry, but of peace and comradery, the collective and the individual.
The war years
It’s difficult to keep track of which city the author is writing from at any given point from 1943-1945 because the family was able to escape areas which had become too dangerous. From Rome to Verona, Riccione to Cavalese, Trieste to Monteviale, the family had the means to keep moving and avoid Allied bombing, assaults that had pummeled the south of the country. Not everyone in Italy could do likewise, and an undercurrent of class struggle can be facilely detected in Castellina’s recollection by the reader through her various remarks and anecdotes from that period.
The young Italian, however, remained undecided on which side she wanted to support after Mussolini’s detention. She is patriotic, but hates the fascists; she detests the British for their bombardment of Italy, but distrusts the occupying Germans as well despite the enduring alliance between Berlin and Rome under Pietro Badgolio.
Adding further apprehension, anti-Semitism had rapidly been spreading throughout parts of the country, particularly provincial Veneto, in turn affecting her maternal family whcih had Jewish roots. Several race laws were passed by the fascist government, including those barring Jews from practicing law or attending school. “Do you know why Jews are no longer allowed into schools? Because they pay fees for one and learn for ten,” she recalls someone telling her.
It was also exceedingly difficult for Aryans--Castellina’s choice of word used to describe non-Jewish Europeans--to marry into any other ethnic group due to these strict race laws. Incidentally, Castellina’s mother was permitted to divorce Luciana’s biological father and marry an Aryan man, which ran against essentially every cultural norm in the sharply Christian conservative society of WWII Italy.
Peace comes to Italy
The American arrival in Messina, Sicily in early June 1944 signaled the beginning of the end of the war. Many in Castellina’s social class, who had previously declared loyalty to the fascists, now feared reprisals by the anti-fascist Partito d’Azione. And with lugubrious inevitability, news of the camps in Germany and Poland began to trickle in, as well as stories of Italian barbarity in Yugoslavia.
More often than not these tales of horror were relayed by communists at rallies held with increasing frequency after the war’s conclusion, including one on the status of Trieste, the border city from which Castellina’s grandfather hailed. It was the opinion of the Italian left—both communists and socialists—that Trieste should be given to Tito’s Yugoslavia, not just because of Italian crimes committed against Slovenians in the city during the war but for historical reasons tracing back many decades. Fighting against inherent nationalist tendencies, to say nothing of family loyalties, Castellina recalls the indelibly positive impression the communists had on her.
Castellina’s political awakening, however, was not simply the product of her interactions with the Italian Left. Castellina spends time foraying into art, specifically cubism, and makes several important observations with respect to the relationship between art and class. Running in contrast to the mainstream and neoliberal idea that communism kills individual expression, the book details a multitude of colorful examples on the essential role art played for Castellina and many of her future PCI acquaintances as a vehicle to critically assess political thought and dogmas of economic design.
Perhaps the most startling observation in the book is found in Castellina’s sober realization that Italy had no gallery of contemporary art during the country’s fascist era. To that point, the post-war years ushered in a wave of young artists, influenced heavily by Picasso’s “Guernica,” striving to create social art worthy of symbolizing what fascism’s effects had been as well as Italy’s hope for an alternative future.
Discovery of the world
Castellina travels to Paris in 1947 and finds the city to be ambivalent. The French Left is highly intelligent but supercilious; the bourgeois is incredibly racist. Moreover, she finds French youth indifferent to sex—a shocking state of affairs when juxtaposed with the Italian custom. At the same time, she begins to learn of the de facto civil war which had been raging in the south of Italy between laborers and landowners, and of Sicilian peasants who were killed after protesting work conditions.
After being inundated by fascist propaganda throughout secondary school, Castellina’s relays her growing appreciation of alternative historical perspectives. Castellina quickly accepts the Left’s position that humans are not separated as much by national borders as they are by social class. “I am convinced that history needs to be treated in a new way,” she writes.
When she signs up to help rebuild the destroyed Yugoslavian railway through the International Union of Students (IUS), I was at first most interested to read about her reaction upon entering Trieste. But page after page, one gets the sense that Castellina’s awakening is not about this destination or that one; it’s not about debating politics in Wenceslas Square in Prague or walking through the bombed out ruins of Budapest. It is the entire journey: the people she encounters, the resistance struggles she learns of in India, Israel, and Palestine, the interactions between those from imperialist countries and those from lands which were colonized. It’s about learning to share the bread and jam, even when there is very little of it. It’s about learning the value of manual labor, the importance of unity, and possessing a collective goal.
Upon returning to Italy, however, she discovers that very few people share her opinions and empathize with her experiences. Her prim, bourgeois family is a source of particular frustration.
Seeking answers to the social question, her loquacious energy is matched only by PCI, which she officially joins in 1947. The party went on to lose that year’s important municipal elections, splitting the country into two social blocs which mirrored most of Europe during the onset of the Cold War.
The problems of Italian communism
One of the legacies of Castellina’s early years in PCI was to never question the party. In fact, she even states that she never distinguished between the average worker and politicians. While such loyalty is commendable, it is also a principal reason why PCI was never able to compete with the reactionary elements of the Italian political system which were much more malleable and open to debate. There’s also an Orwellian lesson of what happens when control is held by those who are not held accountable. “Power is not a means; it is an end,” the British writer once wrote.
When PCI faced internal criticism, such as the debate over the Prague Spring in 1968, the party expelled its dissident members, including Castellina who by this time had become critical of the party’s insouciant leadership group . Years later this philosophy was amended, but by that time communism was in its last throes. Moreover, Castellina seems resigned to the fact that Italian communism could never reach the level of the Soviet communist party, which was her “ideal horizon.” It’s also unclear if the inner workings of the USSR’s administration were even preferable to PCIs goals, which would only be achieved through democratic elections.
Was there a chance for international democratic socialism to tangibly succeed? Castellina seems to think there was. Within Italy itself, however, it was always going to be an uphill battle. The country remained relatively well-off, and Castellina admits that it lacked a peasant working class. However, she cites the many destitute and disadvantaged, especially in the post-war south of the country, which might have offered some hope. Ultimately, it is the unwillingness of others in Castellina’s social class to travel around and see impoverished people and places which prohibited the type of vicarious identification of suffering that she herself experienced.
A self-depreciating reflection
Such identification continues to be sorely lacking in Italy today, a reality that is not lost on Castellina. Through casual interjections of humor and anecdotes, she regularly takes jabs at the country’s current ruling class which had been led for the better part of the past two decades by billionaire mogul Silvio Berlusconi--the very embodiment of everything Castellina abhors. An assessment of Italy’s abysmal economic performance during Berlusconi’s time in power provides enough empirical data to corroborate Castellina’s condemnation of Italy’s broken political system. Moreover, the stories of sordid love affairs and debauchery that have emerged about the country’s former Prime Minister align him more with some of Rome’s worst caesars than as a man of the people.
Failures on the Italian left and right led to the rise of a technocratic government in 2011 following the country’s debt crisis. Since then, Italy has experienced an ushering in of austerity policies, public sector spending cuts, and across the board tax hikes. It’s a story repeated throughout most of the continent, especially those bearing the brunt of Europe’s economic collapse—Spain, Greece, Ireland, and Iceland.
Things might have been different had another course been charted decades earlier, although Castellina doesn’t explicitly say so. But Discovery of the World does demonstrate that all must make personal sacrifices to justify the pursuit of a collective goal and a more just world. Unfortunately, that is a lesson lost on most of the world’s political leaders today.
Tim LaRocco teaches political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Cambodia-based freelance journalist and English teacher.