Blog post

Claudio Pavone, 1920 – 2016

David Broder 3 December 2016

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Claudio Pavone, 2010.

Before his death on 29 November Claudio Pavone brought out the last of some two dozen books, a personal account of his 1963 visit to the Soviet Union. He came to Moscow to pursue his archival work, but also to see a socialist country at a moment of apparent reform. When a colleague asked if his desire to see Lenin’s tomb owed to some Communist affiliation, the Italian historian explained that he was not a party man but an "independent leftist." His Russian collaborator struggled to understand: how could one place oneself on the Left, but not be in the Communist Party?

Pavone was never a "Party historian" or even a member of the two-million strong Italian Communist Party (PCI), but he was nonetheless a political person whose works on Fascism and the Italian Resistance also made a decisive political impact. His own involvement in the anti-fascist struggle in his early twenties was followed by a career producing among the very most important contributions to Resistance history. This was particularly true of his 1991 study A Civil War (now available in English), which offered a penetrating analysis of the intersecting class, civil and national wars shaping the struggles of 1943–45.

This work more than any other grasped the complexity of Italian democracy’s foundational moment, and was a particularly valuable intervention given the time of its appearance, in the context of the death of the old anti-fascist parties who had together formed the postwar "constitutional arch." With the 1991 collapse of the PCI, soon followed by the Christian-Democrats, Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power allowed post-Fascists to return to government for the first time since 1945. In a period when the Republic’s founding myths were thus losing their political heft, Pavone’s work powerfully rebutted any relativistic idea of Fascist and anti-fascist "twin extremisms," while also frankly recognising the Resistance’s more divisive and sectarian aspects.

The title of Pavone’s work was itself something of a provocation, the publisher choosing to highlight the "civil war" aspect of his analysis in a seeming bid for media attention. Implicitly referring to communities pitted against themselves rather than an all-embracing mobilisation against foreign occupation, such a characterisation of the Resistance was, indeed, traditionally associated with revisionist or neo-fascist accounts of partisan atrocities and sectarian score-settling, and thus absent from the mass of historiography venerating the PCI’s leading role in the patriotic movement. Pavone’s idea of ‘civil war’ emphasised that each war of national liberation is also at the same time a battle to define the national community itself, and indeed "that one of the characteristics of civil war is to deny the nationalness of the opponent."

While it was this debate that occupied most media and public attention, sparking often conflicted reactions among ex-partisans, the book’s subtitle (and the title originally chosen by Pavone) better grasped the structuring idea of the work, a "Historical Essay on Morality in the Resistance." In its pages Pavone brilliantly brings into relief "the choice" confronting each Italian: the divided loyalties of the army officer or the teenager conscripted to Mussolini’s forces, the quandary of the intellectual turning to terrorism, and each partisan’s conflict between self-preservation and the struggle to define the future. The eloquence of Pavone’s argument was underpinned by his awesome mastery of his sources, no doubt helped by his long decades working as an archivist.

This understanding of the Resistance’s competing strands was also present in Pavone’s efforts to take seriously the different political horizons of its participants. While the use of the anti-Nazi struggle as a unifying national myth by Italy’s postwar institutions and parties tended to banalise its social contents — reduced to a lowest common denominator of "patriotism" or blandly inoffensive notions of "progress" — Pavone also explored the Resistance politics that did not succeed in shaping the postwar state. These ranged from the eloquent revolutionary-democratic theses of the Action Party (the second-biggest partisan force, but dissolved in 1947) to the more diffuse, even millenarian ideas of social upheaval present among the thousands of young Italians taking up arms.

Beyond A Civil War Pavone portrayed this conflict between mythology and history in his many essays on the political theories (and post-facto theorisation of) the Resistance. This was most notable in his 1959 study of the history of the idea of a "Second Risorgimento": the project of uniting an Italian nation left socially and geographically polarised even after its territorial integration in the 1860s, raised sloganistically by both Fascists and wartime resistants. He also drew decisive focus to the notion of a "continuity of state" across the Fascist period and after, with real institutional change but also elements of blockage and barriers to democratisation.

Born in 1920, Pavone joined the Socialist Party in German-occupied Rome, where he was arrested on 22 October 1943. He was later active with the short-lived "Italian Labour Party" in the Resistance in Milan. Having secured a law degree before the Resistance, Pavone worked at the state archives until the mid-1970s, before becoming a history lecturer at Pisa University. He combined his more properly scholarly activities with contributions to the militant Left press, including an important 1977 text in Democrazia Proletaria’s journal counterposing PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer’s "historic compromise" with the Christian Democrats to the ideas of Antonio Gramsci (a piece soon to be available in English). He died on 29 November 2016, a day short of his ninety-sixth birthday.

The week after Pavone’s death the Italian Republic faces fresh political crisis, with the parties created amidst the early-1990s collapse of the ‘constitutional arch’ now themselves facing disaster. On Sunday 4 December Italians will vote in a constitutional referendum that could strike a decisive blow to the postwar order in Italy and beyond, with opposition to Prime Minister Renzi’s planned reforms threatening both his government and the country’s future in the European Union. A much-depleted Left has mobilised in defence of the "Constitution born of the Resistance," resisting the most sweeping changes to this document since it was introduced in 1948. As Italy heads into uncharted waters, we can only hope that the ideals that arose amidst the country’s greatest social struggles can again have their place in shaping its future.


Filed under: history, italy