H-Diplo Article Review 820 on Fiona Haig. “Communists on the Brink: The Gorizian Comrades of the Early Post-War Period.”

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Article Review

No. 820

8 January 2019




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


Fiona Haig.  “Communists on the Brink:  The Gorizian Comrades of the Early Post-War Period.”  The International History Review 40:3 (2018):  493-522.  
DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2017.1357134.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR820


Review by Christopher Read, University of Warwick


Most studies of communism concentrate on leaders, institutions, or ideology. Fiona Haig has taken a different and valuable direction in choosing to study Communists in the small locality of Gorizia. Like all quality microhistory, close examination opens up extraordinarily broad vistas. Gorizia is a border region of mixed ethnicity situated on the disputed border of Italy and what was then Yugoslavia. Like any border there were many cross-cutting intersections. It had conflicting Slovenian and Italian ethnicity. Most Slavic leftists favoured incorporation in Yugoslavia, while the Italians wanted to stay in Italy. There were hard-line Stalinists, mainly among the shipyard workers of Monfalcone, and admirers of the more subtle approach of the Italian Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, who participated in an Italian government of national unity as the war ended. There was an issue with surviving supporters of the fascist regime living alongside heroes of the resistance. Overlaying all was the still strong influence of the Catholic Church.


Above all it was a friction point where the tectonic plates of Cold War East and West rubbed against each other. It created a unique and fluid situation for the local Communists and for Haig who effortlessly guides us through the complexities. As the war ended, the local Communists in their own Gorizian party were split between those who wanted to join with Tito and Yugoslavia and those who wanted to be close to the Italian Communist Party. The period also saw a struggle over the borders concerning Trieste, which claimed an independent status as a free state.


As if that was not complicated enough, 1947 saw a series of volte-face. The Marshall Plan solidified the Cold War. The split between the Yugoslav communist leader and former partisan fighter Josip Broz Tito and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin meant doctrinal differences were added to ethnic differences. Prior to that point there had been no clear ideological distinction between those Gorizians who favoured Yugoslavia and those who favoured Italy. However, after the split a number of Gorizians who had gone to Yugoslavia were expelled for being Stalinist Internationalists rather than Titoite ‘nationalists.’ Also at this moment the Treaty of Paris undermined the option of joining Yugoslavia. Trieste was de facto incorporated into the Italian sphere, since it was occupied by British and American forces and became a non-functioning free state under the United Nations. In effect, the option of joining Yugoslavia was shut off, as Haig says, since in the burgeoning Cold War, the possibility of the west handing territory over to a communist state, even a Titoite one, was unthinkable. In September 1947 Italian troops took control of the province from the British.


The Gorizians had to face up to the reality of joining the Italian Communist Party which, by this time, had been excluded from government. It was a low point for the Gorizian Communists as the gradual reassertion of authority by the right encouraged surviving fascists to conduct violent actions against the former resistance fighters living in the same city. In one case, a resistance fighter’s house was bombed. From this point on the Gorizians adjusted to the inevitability of being part of the Togliatti-dominated Italian party and of being citizens of the Italian state. They adopted, Haig tells us, five new guidelines to their policy. To summarise Haig’s points, they were changing from an orientation to the Eastern Bloc to one focussed on a transition to socialism according to local conditions within the global situation; from the principle of armed struggle to that of a consensual transition to socialism; from a position of class war to creating a communist-led hegemony by appealing to the political middle ground; from prioritising the ideological and political integrity of the party to alliance-building with other democratic forces; and from a cadre party with a top-down organisation to one that brought about “freedom of discussion” and “unity in action” (506). From having been an underground party for two decades in the fascist era they buckled down to parliamentary politics, bolstering the local minority against the newly-established, American-backed Christian Democratic party.


Haig’s article goes on to expertly analyse the stratagems by which they were able to adapt to parliamentary politics so that, in the author’s convincing judgment, “as it turned out, they were very good at it” (504). They gained their reward in the 1960s when they were able to overtake the Christian Democrats. They continued in this vein until the collapse of the Italian Communist Party. One of its leaders, who moved into the successor Democratic Party, was asked if he was nostalgic for the former party. He replied that he was not and that it was necessary to move with the times. This was very much in accord with Haig’s key point which is to draw attention to the “pragmatism” of the Gorizian communists in negotiating these tricky waters, favouring a series of different approaches and tendencies. They provided, she concludes, “a master class in political pragmatism” (518). In this she is no doubt correct, though perhaps the term pragmatic needs to be used with caution in connection with any Marxist-Leninist group, since they all had a strong ideological core. Nonetheless, Haig’s article is a thoughtful, well-researched, and well-constructed guide to a fascinating and revealing microcosm.


Christopher Read is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Warwick. His books include War and Revolution in Russia 1914-22 (London:  Palgrave, 2013) and Stalin: from the Caucasus to the Kremlin (London: Routledge, 2016).


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