Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 11, 2014

Fascist art

Filed under: art,Fascism,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

When Frank Rosengarten went over to Italy in 1956 to work on his dissertation, he planned on researching Vasco Pratolini, a novelist best known for “Il quartiere”, a work known as “The Naked Streets” in English. He had been told that Pratolini was a Communist, an affiliation that made sense given the strong identification he had with his working-class protagonists. He seemed at first blush to have all the right connections, developing a friendship with Roberto Rossellini during WWII, fighting with the partisans against Il Duce and the Nazis, and developing a whole body of work that was similar to that of Ignacio Silone if not as well known.

Eventually Frank discovered to his complete surprise that Pratolini was a card-carrying member of the Fascist party until the late 1930s:

The fact is – and it is a difficult fact to grasp – young Pratolini looked on Fascism as marking a revolutionary turn in Italian history, a new order that would redeem the working class and establish a society of equals, based on labor, with the state assuming the role of disciplinarian, making sure that private interest groups would never threaten the lives of the Italian masses. He even believed that Fascism had a universal and liberating role to play in the world. His disillusionment therefore was doubly painful. The empty space in his ideological universe was filled by the only political force that, in his view, in the Italy of 1943 to 1945, could bring about the revolution that Fascism had left unrealized, namely the renascent Italian Communist Party led by Palmiro Togliatti. And behind Togliatti there was the great Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, whose writings Pratolini began to read, in fragmentary and clandestine publications, in 1944 or 1945.

I doubt that Frank, who died a couple of weeks ago after a year long battle with prostate cancer, was well enough to have attended the show on Italian Futurism at the Guggenheim but I am sure he would have been reminded of Pratolini.

I attended the show yesterday with long-time friend and Marxmail co-moderator Les Schaffer and was amazed to discover how a generation of Italy’s most talented artists could have lent themselves to the fascist cause. As we walked down the ramp, the paintings and other art works had the same kind of bold spirit and experimental drive as Russian art of the early 1920s.

One artist covered the same bases as Pratolini but in reverse order. Born in 1881, Carlo Carrà became famous for his 1911 painting “The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli” that commemorated the death of Italian anarchist Angelo Galli, shot by police during a general strike in 1904.

The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli

Wikipedia on Carrà:

Carrà was indeed an anarchist as a young man but, along with many other Futurists, later held more reactionary political views, becoming ultra-nationalist and irredentist before and during the war, as well as by Fascism after 1918 (in the 1930s, Carrà signed a manifesto in which called for support of the state ideology through art). The Strapaese group he joined, founded by Giorgio Morandi, was strongly influenced by fascism and responded to the neo-classical guidelines which had been set by the regime after 1937 (but was opposed to the ideological drive towards strong centralism).

For the movement, modern transportation had the same kind of charisma that Christian symbols had for artists of the renaissance. Their works were filled with homages to airplanes and railroad trains. Within Futurism, it was a subgenre called arte meccanica. This 1922 work by Ivo Pannaggi titled “Speeding Train” is emblematic:

Speeding Train

In the same year that he painted “Speeding Train”, Pannaggi co-wrote the “Manifesto dell’Arte Meccanica Futurista” (Manifesto of Futurist Mechanical Art) with fellow Futurist Vinicio Paladini. The Manifesto was couched in Marxist language and saw machinery as a “key to bridging the gap between the proletariat and bourgeoise” as Wikipedia puts it. It would seem that “bridging the gap” between proletariat and bourgeoisie was a theme that allowed some of these artists and novelists to become seduced by fascism, especially when there were such benefits to be gained. After Pratolini became a fascist spokesman, he landed a cushy job with the Ministry of Education.

Even though Pannaggi’s Marxism was questionable at best, it was too much for Futurism’s czar Filippo Marinetti to put up with. Again from Wikipedia:

Marinetti is known best as the author of the Futurist Manifesto, which he wrote in 1909. It was published in French on the front page of the most prestigious French daily newspaper, Le Figaro, on 20 February 1909. In The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, Marinetti declared that “Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” George Sorel, who influenced the entire political spectrum from anarchism to Fascism, also argued for the importance of violence. Futurism had both anarchist and Fascist elements; Marinetti later became an active supporter of Benito Mussolini.

The Sorel connection is interesting. In the early 20th century he had many supporters on both the right and the left, as I discovered doing some research on José Carlos Mariátegui. Mariátegui, the father of Peruvian communism and a major influence on my own pro-indigenist Marxism, extolled Sorel in his writings. This is no surprise considering Mariátegui’s exposure to the Italian left during his stay in Italy from 1920 to 1923. Sorel was a favorite of the Italian anarchist movement and clearly had an impact on those who had a “voluntarist” streak.

Over and over the exhibition makes reference to the rise of nationalist fervor that led to Mussolini’s rise to power. As many of you probably know, Il Duce started off as a socialist. I would strongly recommend that you watch Marco Bellochio’s “Vincere”, a 2010 biopic about Mussolini that can be seen on a Netflix DVD. Starting out as a socialist, he capitulates to war fever at the outset of WWI and makes fiery speeches about the nation having to redeem itself in battle before advancing toward socialism.

Unlike Hitler, Mussolini was less prone to impose esthetic strictures on Italian society. While by no means a Futurist ideologically, he was happy to accept their toadying salutes. It was only around 1937 that pressures from Hitler forced him to adopt a more “traditionalist” outlook in sync with the campaign against degenerate art taking shape in Germany.

A show on “Degenerate Art” is on display at the Neue Galerie on 86th Street, just 3 blocks south of the Guggenheim where the Futurism show is running. Both exhibitions close on September 1 and I urge fellow New Yorkers to grab both.

Les and I stopped by the Neue Galerie before heading over to the Guggenheim. Both of us were intrigued by the inclusion of Emil Nolde in the “degenerate art” exhibition mounted by the Nazis in 1937. Nolde was not a Communist like George Grosz. In fact he was a card-carrying Nazi until his modernist inclinations put him outside the Hitler cult. This 1912 woodcut titled “The Prophet” was included in the degenerate art exhibition, just one of more than a thousand works by Nolde that were seized by the Nazis. Nolde was a German Dane, who considered Expressionism to be an echt-Aryan style, a view shared by Joseph Goebbels.

The Prophet

After 1941 Nolde was prevented from making any new paintings, so total was Hitler’s opposition to anything that smacked of modernism. Intent on continuing his work, Nolde took up watercolors since they—unlike oils—did not produce a strong odor, something that would allow the Gestapo to catch Nolde in the act of creating art.

The Neue Galerie was funded by Ronald Lauder, the Republican billionaire heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire, former Ambassador to Austria, and President of the American Jewish Congress. Using his enormous wealth, Lauder interjects himself both in American and Israeli politics. A 2002 profile on Lauder by Michael Massing in the American Prospect gave the lowdown on a Jewish counterpart to the Koch brothers:

Politically, however, he seemed out of step with most American Jews; in 1989, while seeking the Republican nomination for mayor of New York, he ran to the right of Rudolph Giuliani. And, on Israeli issues, he was a vocal Likudnik, with long-standing ties to Netanyahu. While Lauder was seeking the conference chair, the Jewish press carried reports that he had helped bankroll Netanyahu’s campaign for prime minister. Such foreign contributions are illegal under Israeli law; Lauder denied the reports, but that did little to mollify his opponents.

If you go to the American Jewish Congress website, you’ll find a “talking points” page that repeats all the usual hasbara bullshit. Lauder showed up in Israel in July on behalf of the AJC, where he turned the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim, as Malcolm X once put it. The Jerusalem Post reported:

According to Lauder, a former US ambassador to Austria and deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO affairs, the international media have not adequately portrayed the “hundreds of rockets” that have been fired into Israel by Hamas as intercepted projectiles make for boring stories.

“They can’t show rockets being blown up in the air by one side. That’s not a story. And the result is that there is this fanning of anti-Semitism.

“There are no pictures to be seen, so they have reporters reporting on what’s happening in Gaza and they hear stories about children being killed and things like that and the result is that the Arab communities all over hear that the Israelis are going after them,” he explained.

As a long-time observer of political/cultural trends, it strikes me as a crowing irony that someone like Lauder can fund a museum that decries Nazi suppression of great art while at the same time cheering on an assault on a defenseless people that is widely regarded as taken from the Nazi playbook, to the point where rightwing Israelis carry signs saying “One People, One State, One Leader”—a Nazi slogan.

It is also deeply ironic that the modernism of the 1920s and 30s became an instrument of corporate power during the Cold War and is now brandished by someone like Ronald Lauder who would most certainly be the target of George Grosz, the Communist artist whose animosity for such bourgeois pigs was so prominent in most of his work. The Nazis knew who their enemy was when they included Grosz’s work in the Degenerate Art show. One would only hope that a new generation of artists would begin to develop the backbone to picture Lauder in the same way Grosz depicted the Lauders of his day in the 1926 “Pillars of Society”:

Pillars of Society


  1. Pratolini was probably better known in Italy than Silone. Some of his novels were turned into decent films. But Silone was published in paperback very early in America. I had a copy as a boy. In Italy the movement from right to left in the 30’s was as common as Il Duce’s from left to right. Rossellini himself made a couple of Fascist films at the start of his career.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — August 11, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

  2. There were anarchists in Italy who became fascists, there were anarchists in China who choose the KMT over the CCP. Some inquiry as to why this happened, if it hasn’t been done already, would seem to be an important exercise.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 11, 2014 @ 9:59 pm

  3. I was taught in college and have always wanted to believe that Fascism was fundamentally lacking in intellectual content and artistic appeal. IMHO, this may be true of most fascists–there are pictures of Mussolini’s big men jumping through flaming hoops and showing off in equally clownish, proto-Putinesque ways that seem to rule out the presence of intellect and sometimes even of intelligence. Certainly nobody would accuse the obviously intelligent, if thoroughly tasteless (and of course monstrous), Josef Goebbels of appealing either to the critical intellect or to the wellsprings of artistic creativity.

    But this article adds weight to a growing suspicion that fascism had more intellectual appeal than we were taught, and not just for outliers like the arguably crazy Ezra Pound. W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and other mavens of modernism had unmistakable fascist leanings–the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio let the fascist seizure of Trieste in 1919. Mussolini’s chief ideologue Giovanni Gentile, who ghost-wrote the foundation document of fascism for the duce, was described by the greatly respected Benedetto Croce as holding “the honor of having been the most rigorous neo–Hegelian in the entire history of Western philosophy” as well as “the dishonor of having been the official philosopher of Fascism in Italy.” Paul de Man, the Cornell and Yale professor who was a founder of and impresario for the movement in literary criticism now known as “deconstructionism” was, in the words of his former student Suzanne Gordon (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/04/deconstructing-paul-de-man/ ) “a Nazi collaborator, embezzler, bigamist, serial deadbeat, and fugitive from justice in Belgium.” The well-known if problematic case of Heidegger is by no means the only example of “real” talent lending itself to fascism.

    Nobody was more dismayed than the noted Expressionist painter Emil Nolde when his beloved Nazis branded his art as “degenerate.”

    “Real” artists and intellectuals in general–“good” ones–can all too readily lend their weight to damn near anything–and profound injustice can attract them as much as the opposite. And now we have the evidence of this exhibition.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — August 11, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

  4. From the June Philosophy Cafe at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA

    The study of myths and mythologies over the past century has been greatly shaped by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In any number of his writings, starting from The Birth of Tragedy on, he was concerned with investigating the social and cultural functions of myths, especially in terms of their roles in promoting cultural integration and social solidarity. This approach was a break with the idea, popular during the Enlightenment, that saw myths as simply bad science or obsolete science. Myths do perform explanatory functions, but they have many other functions as well.

    Almost every major thinker of the past century who was concerned with myth cites Nietzsche as a source of inspiration. This includes people like Joseph Campbell and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Nietzsche was also concerned with trying to find new myths for the modern era too. His famous aphorism that “God is dead” reflects his view that in the modern era religion was losing its ability to provide us with compelling myths to guide our society and culture. Nietzsche himself proposed new myths like his myth of eternal recurrence that he hoped could take the place of the old myths that religion had provided us.

    The French political philosopher Georges Sorel was one thinker who took up Nietzsche’s challenge. He agreed with Nietzsche that the myths of religion were no longer compelling for us moderns and he sought new myths that could take their place. He believed that such myths could be found in the political sphere. One such myth that he thought might prove to be compelling was the anarcho-syndicalist myth of the “general strike” in which the working class would rise up and overthrow capitalism and create a new society. Sorel did not pretend to know whether such a thing was actually possible or not and he did not think that was the most important issue anyway. Rather, for him, the important issue was whether enough people would find this myth sufficiently compelling to motivate them into action. If so, that was good enough for Sorel. If not, then we might have to explore other myths. In fact if one looks at Sorel’s biography we find that he always flip-flopping politically between the far left and the far right. The political right, after all, had its own myths like the myth of the nation and of blood and soil. And those myths were found to be compelling by many people too.As things turned out, Sorel would prove to be an influential thinker on both the radical left and the radical right. On the left, he influenced people like the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who was one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, and the Peruvian Marxist, Jose Mariategui, who founded the Peruvian Communist Party. On the right, Benito Mussolini professed to be a great admirer to Sorel too.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — August 11, 2014 @ 11:20 pm

  5. The Marxist philosopher Galvano della Volpe is said to have been a Fascist during the 1930s. At that time he considered himself to be a neo-Hegelian, who followed in the footsteps of Gentile and Croce. Later on he broke with neo-Hegelianism as he studied the work of logical positivists like Rudolf Carnap and of classical empiricists like David Hume. He seems to become disillusioned with Fascism during the course of the Second World and by the time that the Allies invaded Sicily he was ready to join the Italian Communist Party.

    Comment by windcareer — August 11, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

  6. Curzio Malaparte was one of the most curious examples of ideological volatility in 1920-40’s Italy. He marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922. But his journalistic high jinks got him expelled from the Fascist Party and sent into internal exile. When he was released in 1938, the Party kept arresting him for one thing and another. But in 1941 he was sent by the Corriere della Sera to report the Eastern Front. His experience would go into “Kaputt” of 1944, one of the best books about WWII. He followed this with “La pelle” a remarkable book about Naples under the US occupation. His brilliance was to see the war from the losers point of view. Postwar he joined the Communist Party and it was as a Communist he was welcomed in China before his death at the end of the 1950’s.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — August 12, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

  7. Anybody interested in Frank’s book which deals with the anti-fascist left in Italy should go here:


    I am going to try to figure out a way that the book will be available in the USA but since Peter is in Italy he should have no problems. It is really a great little book. I will be blogging on it, probably on Thursday.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 12, 2014 @ 8:55 pm

  8. Togliatti was Stalin’s henchman in Italy. With Gramsci they wrestled control of the CP out of the hands of Bordiga, who was the only real socialist left in control of any major party in the world by then. He was the last person to call Stalin a counterrevolutionary to his face and live to tell the tale. Bordiga was forced out of politics by a combination of the fascists and the Stalinists (he was the only thing the axis and the allies agreed on, even in the midst of a world war they both hated and feared his unbending Marxism). His followers bravely continued on in the underground and remained popular for some time.

    No excuse for any working class artist to support fascism in Italy then, unless they were declassed flotsam fluctuating with the tide of “popular opinion” just like any generic Hollywood liberal today afraid to express an opinion on Israel because of what it could mean for their career.

    Comment by Teddy Putra — August 13, 2014 @ 4:40 am

  9. Cool article dude! Allow me to share a couple of thoughts though:
    The parallel between Pratolli and Carra is unfitting in my humble opinion. The transition from anarchism to fascism was actually a lot more common (especially of course, among the avant-gardes) than that of fascism to communism. There was indeed the revolutionary syndicalism we often see quoted as an anarchoid root of fascism, but for the most part, those futurists turned fascists (Papini, Prezzolini, etc.) were anarcho-individualists in the tradition of Stirner who rejected less politics than they rejected the political. The “left turn” from fascism to communism is a much more nebulous phenomenon, which I’d be keen to explore, and I am glad you pointed me to Pratolini whom I knew not! Another famous Italian convert who turned left after the war was Malaparte, who became a Maoist apparently.

    Take care!

    Comment by B — November 4, 2014 @ 10:26 am

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