Togliatti's Assassin Helped Moscow

by Claire Nelkind | July 26, 1948

It is singular testimony to the times that no one in Italy is praying more ardently for Palmiro Togliatti’s recovery than his own worst enemies. There is no doubting the sincerity of Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi’s anguished cry that the attempted assassination of the Communist leaders was “the worst thing that could have happened.”

Togliatti alive in Italy as the competent leader of a lacerated Left opposition, was high in the esteem of his followers but tainted with the stains of their recent defeat. Togliatti dead, murdered, would be invulnerable. Habitually cool and contained in his lifetime, be would stir far hotter passions from a martyr’s grave than he ever could from a speaker’s rostrum.

 

Even now, as he lies gravely wounded in Rome’s Polyclinic Hospital, a part of that transition has been made. His party has leaped overnight from a crouch of defeat to a mood of angry aggression and religious exaltation. When the shots were fired, Communist deputies, according to a Daily Worker dispatch, “knelt in the hall and kissed Togliatti’s hand as he passed.” And outside the hall a holy rage swirled through the piazzas of Rome and all Italy. A smoking gun in the hands of an obscure Sicilian student already has accomplished what no amount of rhetoric could have produced—it has touched the Communists’ grievances with flame.

The left has been quick to brand this a “second Matteotti killing,” a plot to restore fascism to Italy under the united guidance of the Vatican, Italy’s Catholic government and “Butcher Interior Minister Mario Scelba,” together with American imperialists, warmongers and supporters of the Marshall Plan.

Wherever the blame may lie, there is little doubt where the benefits of Antonio Pallante’s act will accrue. Whether Togliatti lives or dies, they are unquestionably on the Communist side. For in either case the party not only will have acquired a dramatic spur to its activities, but may also find at least a partial solution to its delicate problem of leadership.

It is an open secret that, following the disastrous defeat of the leftist forces last spring, Togliatti’s standing with his party was severely shaken. From the time of his return from the Soviet Union in 1944, he had been the chief sculptor of the leftist front in Italy. It was he who counseled entry into coalition cabinets; he who sought the tight alliance that ultimately strangled the Nenni Socialist Party; he who urged the formation of a broad mass party based on parliamentary alliances, overtures to the Church, the ballot instead of the bullet.

When at the national Communist convention in Milan last winter, Togliatti promised electoral victory in April by pursuing the same course, and denounced the “maximalists” who had interpreted the new Cominform as a signal for “narrow Communist warfare,” he was cheered. But when, three months later, the Popular Front went down to ruinous defeat, he was blamed in the top secret councils of his party.

Indeed, the Cominform editorial of July 1, coming swiftly on the heels of the Tito denunciation which Togliatti signed, might almost have been directed against Togliatti himself. For in outlining the new era of tight parties with hard, revolutionary cores, it called for “strict centralism, conscious discipline, individual selection of persons joining the party and war against opportunist elements.”

 

The evident abandonment of the Popular Front concept and the consequent new type of party for which he is temperamentally far less suited, would have made things difficult for Togliatti in the decisive period to come. Despite that, and despite his diminished personal stature in his own party, it is most probable that he would have carried out the new “line” to the best of his ability.

But it would be easier—and perhaps even safer—for the party to install fresh leadership to meet this call. With Togliatti out of action—at best for a long time, at worst permanently—the opportunity for such a switch is there.

There are three men who might take his place. One, the least possible, is Eugenio Reale, a 42-year-old Neapolitan physician who is now on the Central Committee and has been in the party since 1927. He is an unpolished diamond with a dogged sense of discipline. He would be reliable but uninspired and lacking in the steel qualities of endurance that the party will need.

A far more likely possibility would be Luigi Longo who is a former political commissar in Spain, a graduate of a Soviet military academy and chief of the party’s secret military organization in Italy. Longo is number-two man in the triumvirate that has ruled the party for the past three years. He is as tough as armor plating and far better attuned to the new Cominform position than Togliatti has ever been.

 

The last possibility is Pietro Secchia, third man in the triumvirate and organizing genius of the party, who is commonly held to be the “Minister of the Interior” of the Communist shadow government. An undeviating conformist, totally devoid of the so-called “humanist” and cultural interests that shaded Togliatti’s background, he has been temporarily installed now as acting Secretary-General.

It was Secchia who replaced Reale as Togliatti’s colleague in the recent Cominform session, and it was Secchia, not Togliatti, who issued the first declaration about the Tito denunciation on behalf of the Italian Communist Party. His statement was the most definitive of its kind to have been made by an Italian Communist spokesman since the war. “The interests of the Soviet Union,” he said, “are absolutely identical with those of workers of all countries.”

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.

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