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Politics and Symbols

Politics and Symbols: The Italian Communist Party and the Fall of Communism

David I. Kertzer
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Politics and Symbols
    Book Description:

    In the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall, and with the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsing, Italian Communist Party (PCI) head Achille Occhetto shocked his party in 1989 by insisting that the PCI jettison its old name and become something new. This dramatic book tells of the ensuing struggle within the PCI, which at the time was Italy's second-largest party and the most powerful Communist party in the West. David I. Kertzer's vivid depiction of the conflict brings to life the tactics that party factions employed and the anguish of party members for whom Communism was the core of their identity. Kertzer also tells a larger story from an anthropologist's perspective: the story of the importance of symbols, myths, and rituals in modern politics.Those who seek dramatic political change, Kertzer contends, must remake history. He recounts how those who succeeded in transforming the PCI into the new Democratic Party of the Left effectively used ritual and manipulated political symbols. Bringing the views of Antonio Gramsci, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and other political thinkers into his discussion, Kertzer explores theoretical issues involving the relation between symbolism and political power, concluding that modern politics is fundamentally a struggle over symbols and the redefinition of history.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14736-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. chapter one Naming Names
    (pp. 1-15)

    Stretching out into the periphery of Bologna, behind the train station, just beyond the old walls of the city, lies thequartiereof Bolognina (little Bologna). In a city that symbolized Italian Communism, a city ruled by a Communist mayor since the fall of Fascism, Bolognina was Communism’s popular epicenter. In this quartiere of working-class families, Communism was as much a part of people’s identities as their pride in the cuisine for which they were famous. Indeed, critics charged, Communism was these people’s religion, a faith, complete with complex liturgy and holy hierarchy. When asked, “Are you a Catholic?” a...

  5. chapter two Making Communist History
    (pp. 16-40)

    The Italian Communist Party’s appeal to members and sympathizers rested on various pillars. For many in the industrial working class, for example, the PCI’S aggressive role in backing the union movement and fighting for workers’ benefits over the years merited fierce loyalty. Yet we cannot understand the party’s appeal without understanding its successful construction of history. This history was both outward looking—casting an eye on the rest of the world, producing a PCI view of world history—and inward looking, holding itself up for inspection, producing a self-history.

    History is created in many different ways, but two processes especially...

  6. chapter three Saviors and Conspirators
    (pp. 41-63)

    Leaders of the Italian Communist Party, in developing the party’s symbolic world, worked tirelessly to construct its history. Through these efforts, party leaders sought to define the party’s identity (and hence the identity of its members), legitimize their actions and their leadership, and create a world in which current events could be properly interpreted.

    At the heart of the PCI’S symbolic world was the Manichaean tradition of the international Communist movement. Present from the movement’s nineteenth-century origins, it sprang from much earlier Christian roots. On one side lay good, on the other evil. On one side, the Communists; on the...

  7. chapter four What’s in a Name?
    (pp. 64-83)

    For millions of Italians, from the end of the Second World War through the 1980s, personal identity was rooted in the Communist Party and its symbolism: “Sono comunista” (I am a Communist) was a statement not only of people’s political allegiance but of their core identity. For many, being identified as Communist was more salient and more satisfying than being identified as Italian.

    Party statutes expressed the all-encompassing social and moral nature of the Communist identity. The 1975 statute is typical in alerting members that other people viewed them as representatives of the party: “Each Communist Party member must understand...

  8. chapter five Battling over the Past to Change the Future
    (pp. 84-107)

    Where God is dead, history reigns. When supernatural justifications for holding power fail to persuade, history fills the void. Indeed, history is the proving grounds for both religion and politics. The claims to legitimacy of religion and politics are based on the construction of historical narratives, the manufacture of events and heroes located in the past. Battles for power in the present are fought by producing alternative accounts of the past and alternative readings of its meaning.

    The struggle for power is the struggle to tame the past, to seize it, to make it both intelligible and useful by objectifying...

  9. chapter six Alternative Histories
    (pp. 108-122)

    The relation of the PCI’S history to recent events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (and, to a lesser extent, China) was the main battleground of the fight over the party’s future. Whether or not the PCI, as a “Communist” party, was somehow compromised by these events became a matter of interpreting history. The view that the PCI should become post-Communist as a result of these developments represented, in the view of the opposition, an admission that the PCI was rightfully identified with the Communist parties and regimes of the Communist countries. This identification was one that even the...

  10. chapter seven The Ritual Struggle
    (pp. 123-152)

    The Italian Communist Party could hardly be accused of ignoring the political value of ritual. Rites appeared at all levels of party activity and organization, from the daily rites of local party sections to the vast national rites embodied in annual party feste and periodic party congresses.

    In examining PCI ritual and the use of ritual in the battle over the transformation of the party, I adopt a concept of ritual that is not limited to religion. Following many other analysts of ritual, and especially those concerned with its political uses, I take a broader view, identifying as ritual any...

  11. chapter eight On the Power of Symbols and the Weight of History
    (pp. 153-172)

    At the heart of mass politics in modern societies is the ability of elites to create groups, that is, to get a significant number of people to conceive of themselves as belonging to some group that the leader represents. In Foucault’s terms, to understand the wielding of power, we need to understand how people come to select certain identities for themselves.¹ These identities take shape and are maintained through a constant process of symbolic struggle, either in shoring up an existing symbolic universe or in attempting to change it.

    Yet a nagging doubt remains: are elites free to produce any...

  12. notes
    (pp. 173-192)
  13. bibliography
    (pp. 193-202)
  14. index
    (pp. 203-211)