Review: Senoir Service, by Carlo Feltrinelli

Amid the recent upturn in class struggle in Italy, and the alleged reappearance of the Red Brigades armed campaign earlier this year, the recent publication on the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli could hardly be timelier. Senoir Service charts the rise and successes of the radical Feltrinelli publishing house in the post-war period, as well as its founder’s pivotal, and eventually fatal, role in the underground leftwing terrorist groups during the early 1970s.

Giangiacomo’s son, Carlo Feltrinelli, tells the story. To begin with, the narrative is slow moving and the author employs an idiosyncratic style throughout. Moreover, the political analysis of the Left and society in general is often confused and inconclusive, to say the least. Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile and often compulsive read, with many lessons for the Italian left and anti-capitalist movement, as well as offering insight into important aspects of twentieth century literature.

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was born into the wealthy Italian family – his father ran a number of companies. However during the 1920s and 1930s the Feltrinelli industry increasingly came into conflict with the fascist regime of Mussolini. The death of Feltrinelli senior at a relatively young age is surrounded in some mystery – was it a suicide as a result of hounding by the fascists?

Post war opportunities for the PCI

The adolescent Giangiacomo first took an interest in the lives of workers and the poor during discussions with the staff that ran his family’s estate. He came to understand that the under capitalism, and the fascist regime it had spawned, the vast majority of people could never attain his privileges, and were compelled to sell their labour to the bosses and landowners for a pittance. During the latter stages of the Second World War, Giangiacomo joined the communist party led partisans fighting the invading German army and the remnants of Mussolini’s regime. It was a small step from this to formerly joining the Italian communist party (PCI).

Over the next few years, Giangiacomo played a key role in financing the activities of the PCI. In collaboration with the party he established an important library and archives and a new publishing company, Feltrinelli Editore.

In the post-war period the PCI held a dominant position amongst the Italian working class. The country was in economic ruins and the ruling class was weak. Given the widespread radicalisation in society, it was entirely possible for the PCI to embark on a struggle to peacefully take power on a number of occasions. However, the leadership of the Party was firmly under the influence of the reactionary ruling Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow, which wanted to come to an accommodation with Western imperialism. This lead the PCI to propose a coalition government in Italy, which would see them sharing power with "progressive" capitalist parties and putting off the struggle for socialism to some distant date. But even this was too much for the Italian bosses, who were afraid the PCI in office would unleash a revolution from below.

Doctor Zhivago and The Leopard

In the late 1950s, Feltrinelli accidentally came across the manuscript of the novel Doctor Zhivago, by the Russian writer Boris Pasternak. The Russian set novel follows a multitude of characters from 1903 to 1943 (the period of revolution and Stalinist counter revolution). At once Feltrinelli saw a masterpiece. Stalin and the PCI leaders saw it entirely differently – they could not abide any criticism whatsoever, implied or explicit, of the Moscow regime.

Senoir Service records the fascinating correspondence between Feltrinelli and Pasternak, as they successfully resisted clumsy and heavy-handed attempts by the Stalinist bureaucracy to stop publication. When finally put into print Doctor Zhivago immediately became a best seller internationally, to be followed by a hugely popular film version. (Unfortunately, the literary merits of the novel and its use as an anti-communist propaganda weapon by reactionaries in the West are important issues not treated in any depth by Carlo Feltrinelli). Predictably, Feltrinelli was soon effectively expelled from the PCI.

Feltrinelli Editore scored another coup in 1958 and became the first to publish The Leopard, by Guisppe di Lampedusa. Described as "the greatest novel of the century", The Leopard centres on the Prince of Salina in the 1860s during the period of Italian unification (the capitalist democratic revolution). Should he, a landowner and representative of the old feudal system, resist the forces of change or come to terms with them?

Whatever his own reading tastes, Feltrinelli was always keen to promote the avant guard, including the works of the influential Group 63 literary circle. He also took the risk to illegally publish and distribute novels banned under ‘obscenity laws’, such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

‘Third Worldism’

Freed from PCI control, Feltrinelli spent the next years travelling the world and making links with various radical ‘Third World’ leaders and anti-imperialist and guerrilla movements. He published the writings of figures such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and a series of pamphlets on the unfolding revolution in the colonial world and the Middle East.

Feltrinelli’s political ideas were confused and contradictory. Lacking an independent class analysis, he increasingly sought to advocate guerrilla struggle to further the aims of the Italian working class. But guerrilla campaigns could only play a role in fighting the ruling classes in underdeveloped countries, where the peasantry predominated. Even then they could only act as an auxiliary to the workers’ movement in the struggle for genuine socialism. By contrast, Italy was, and still is, a modern capitalist country. Here the struggle for power lay in the weapons of collective action by the working class, including the general strike.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw renewed a period of student and labour struggles both in Italy and internationally, marking the end of the post war economic boom and a renewed offensive by the bosses. Many in Italy feared an attempted coup d’etat by the right wing in response. As the conservative labour and PCI leaders refused to develop the mass movements, and confusion and impatience grew amongst some middle class youth and workers, Feltrinelli mistakenly prioritised organising "clandestine resistance" to the rightwing threat. Along with the sprouting of other underground terrorist groups, such as the Red Brigades, he established the Partisan Action Group (GAP). As the GAP carried out a series of small-scale bomb attacks against neo-fascist targets and employers, its founder was forced to go on the run from the state.

On 14 March 1972, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was found dead at the foot of an electricity pylon near Milan, apparently killed by his own explosives while on an operation with other GAP members. Like his father’s death, the passing of Giangiacomo is viewed suspiciously. Did the Italian secret services, which had a number of informants in the underground groups, have some hand in his demise?

The sum contribution of the short-lived GAP to the class struggle, like the Red Brigades, was to disorientate some sections of the working class and to give the capitalist state excuses to use repressive measures. Yet 8,000 youth and workers attended Feltrinelli’s funeral. Undoubtedly they were paying homage to a son of the ruling class who had broken ranks and pursued an intransigent goal of revolution, as well as having created a valuable publishing house whose affordable publications both informed and enlightened. But if Giangiacomo Feltrinelli’s life story is to serve in anyway to educate the new generation of militant Italian workers and anti-capitalist youth, it is also necessary to learn from his serious political mistakes.

Senoir Service, by Carlo Feltrinelli (translated by Alastair McEwen), Grant Books, London, 2001.

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June 2002