In recent ruminations on the theme, the ‘idea of communism’ is almost invariably counter-posed to the ‘real movement’ of the same name—which, in the wake of its defeat, has been widely subject to retrospective demonization. Such has been the proliferation of totalitariana since the Cold War ended in capitalist victory that Eric Hobsbawm’s strictures on the ‘witch-hunting’ school in the historiography of Communism, penned some forty years ago, retain much of their relevance. This is the approximate intellectual setting in which the late Lucio Magri’s noble intervention Il sarto di Ulm, published in Italy in 2009, now appears in English, in a fine translation by Patrick Camiller. Bidding farewell to La Rivista del Manifesto in 2004, its author professed himself ‘an often apostate communist’, who felt ‘the need and the duty to go against the grain, and not to cross that line which divides even the harshest criticism from a blanket dismissal and wholesale rejection of the communist heritage’. Doubtful that he could himself acquit so arduous a task, he closed by impressing the need for ‘a differentiated analysis, a counter-factual history of the communist tradition and its overcoming’.

Despite its English subtitle, ‘Communism in the Twentieth Century’, apparently requested by Magri, The Tailor of Ulm is not that history, though it contains seeds of it. Instead, as conveyed by the Italian original, ‘Una possibile storia del pci’, his contribution to the indicated balance sheet of historical communism is ‘much less . . . and something more’ than a comprehensive account of its Italian variant. Less in two respects. For a start, Magri focuses on key episodes in the career of the pci following its re-foundation during World War Two. Secondly, his book is not a documented work of professional historiography, with the customary apparatus of notes and references; the teeming literature of histories, polemics and memoirs receives only glancing mention. But this loss (if such it be) is compensated by a signal gain. The Tailor of Ulm exploits Magri’s vantage-point as a protagonist—from the mid-1980s a leading one—in the drama it unfolds, drawing on the ‘living private archive, in storage’ of its author. The result is a book that stands comparison with classic works by Fernando Claudín on the left, or Franz Borkenau on the right, as participant-observers of Communism.

Symmetrically, in two regards the book is rather more than a history of the pci. Redeeming the promise of the original subtitle, Magri introduces elements of a counter-factual history, advancing ‘hypotheses that did not, but could have, become a reality’—faits inaccomplis, as it were. Furthermore, respecting Gramsci’s precept that ‘to write the history of a party is to write the general history of a country from a monographic point of view’, Magri effects the extension necessarily required when the party in question is a Communist one. For the national determinants of the fate of any communist organization must be variably conjugated with the international factors conditioning its performance—in sum, what pci leader Palmiro Togliatti referred to as the ‘iron bond’ with the world communist movement. If the domestic dimension and growing integration of the parties into their own social formations became dominant after 1956, once ‘national roads to socialism’ had been licensed by Khrushchev, the international remained, willy-nilly, one of the ties that bound even those parties—the Italian prominent among them—which no longer regarded the ussr as a model state. Accordingly, Magri not only devotes an introductory section to itemizing the ‘complex legacy’ bequeathed to the pci by pre-war Communism, with its costly failures and scarcely less costly successes; he counter-points throughout the internal and external developments that formed the operative context of the pci, with chapters on the first and second Cold Wars, de-Stalinization and the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’.

Conscious of the difficulty of attaining ‘the requisite critical distance’ to compose his ‘potential history’, Magri stipulates at the outset that his intention is ‘reflection—not rehabilitation or restoration’ of his subject. The difficulty is compounded, however, because his ambition in fact ranges well beyond reflection. It is essentially three-fold. Magri undertakes a refutation of the two main lines of interpretation of Italian Communism—crudely, that it was either tendentially social democratic or incorrigibly Stalinist. Therewith he attempts a falsification of their corollary—namely, that its transmogrification into the Democratic Party of the Left after 1989 was only logical and certainly desirable. In the process he engages in a critical vindication of the pci in its pursuit of a terza via between Stalinism and Social Democracy. In Magri’s formulation of his thesis:

Intermittently, and without ever fully developing it, the pci represented the most serious attempt at a ‘third way’ in its historical period. That is, it sought to combine partial reforms, broad social and political alliances and a commitment to parliamentary action with resolute social struggles and an explicit, shared critique of capitalist society; to build a highly cohesive, militant party, rich in ideologically trained cadres but with a mass base; and to uphold its affiliation to a world revolutionary camp, enduring the constraints that this implied but gaining for itself a relative autonomy. This was not a matter of mere duplicity; the unifying strategic idea was that the consolidation and development of ‘actually existing socialism’ did not provide a model that could one day be implemented . . . but was the necessary background for a different type of socialism in the West.

Given that Magri considers this to have been what he elsewhere characterizes as ‘a politics of at once radical and realistic ambition’, the question of questions tables itself: whence its abandonment? While not evaded, it is not satisfactorily addressed—in part because of Magri’s perplexity, ruefully acknowledged, at the success of the operation that changed the pci into the pds.

The key to the mystery must lie somewhere in the trajectory that Magri analyses, with an independence of mind and lack of rancour all the more striking given that his party left him, not he it, twice. Such equanimity is perhaps not unconnected with his retrospective assessment of the first breach, in 1969, when Magri and others were expelled for publishing an unauthorized journal, Il Manifesto. For he now offers a sober self-criticism of the ‘simple-minded extremism’ into which he reckons he and his comrades drifted, once their ambition of aiding the pci to renew itself had been frustrated by its leadership. Anyone conversant with the group’s impressive work will know how far Il Manifesto—submitting to the gravitational pull of the Cultural Revolution in China, cast as a ‘left break with Stalinism’— went in pressing a Maoist critique of ‘state capitalism’ in the ussr, and ‘revisionism’ in the Communist movement, in a conjuncture that had supposedly put world revolution on the agenda. (‘Vous tissez du mauvais coton’, Rossana Rossanda quotes Ralph Miliband as having advised her at the time.) Disabused of the prospects for ‘extremist politics’, and inspired by a seemingly positive turn in the pci, Magri’s return to the fold in 1984 affords the settled perspective from which he surveys its past in The Tailor of Ulm.