In Italy, communists and fascists are still fighting the battles of the past century.
As the band reached its dizzy finale, the crowd went wild as the violinist set down his instrument and began to wave a large red flag with the hammer and sickle painted on it. Behind the tired tarantella musicians a red banner hung from the arches reading Viva Lenin and I began to wonder what century I was in.
Communism and fascism belong largely to the history books in most of the world. The corruption, inefficiency, informant society and millions of lives condemned to torturous labour camps largely discrediting the 20th century communist experiments. And though socialism is making a comeback in Latin America thanks to Chavez and co, who, after the murderous dictatorships of Stalin and Mao would proudly affirm to be a communist?
Well, in Italy, plenty.
Florence has long has a strong left wing tradition, if not quite as extreme as in nearby Bologna where residents sometimes paint their shutters and windows red to affirm their political identity. But even so I was surprised at the voracity of the graffiti I saw as I walked around the city.
The police are murderers
To be a police officer is to be a pig
Long live communism!
Like many teenagers, I’d dabbled in protest movements and even gone to the odd Socialist Worker meeting, largely in the hope of getting laid. Instinctively, I lost patience with the rhetoric and joyless committees trying to out-reference one another with quotes from dead political heroes of the Russian Revolution.
In any case, I took it for granted that the political focus had moved on to the eco-destruction wrought by runaway capitalism. Debates about left and right seemed to belong to an age that had faded away into irrelevance as culture and technology propelled us into the future.
But not in Italy.
In Florence, communists still run social centers where art workshops are held, there are concerts featuring musicians from around Europe (with only a little slogan shouting in between) and they’re generally the focal point of alternative culture in town. With the flags of the ex-Soviet bloc countries flying overhead.
Left and right are still the paradigms of the day in Italy and at times it feels like they’re still fighting the struggle of a previous age. For with the rise to power of the Far Right in Italy, neo-fascists make life hell for African immigrants on the street and celebrate the days of the glorious Duce, seen by many as the only Italian to ever get anything done.
“So why does Italy have such extremes?” I asked a woman at an anti-fascist meeting. She shrugged.
“Maybe because we once were fascist. And then you have the fact that immigration is new to Italy – we used to be the ones who emigrated. And then you have the Pope…”
Italians love to complain about the impossibility of their country, yes, it’s beautiful but useless a man told me later that evening. We had a good time eating bread and salami, drinking red wine in the piazza and politics seemed to only play a small part in the evening’s events.
I’ve long since stopped seeing the world in terms of black and white, left and right but in Italy I had to think again. Fascists who now call themselves The new Force hold a good deal of power in Italy, a country tied inexorably to its past, and the best way to let fascism rise is probably to do nothing at all.
But who can really still take the communist manifesto seriously?
Not the Italians, at any rate. After a week of dancing and dining at events organised by the left, I learned that Communism can be a party, after all.