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Modern Italy
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The family, sexual morality and gender

identity in the communist tradition in
Italy (19211956)
Maria Casalini
Dipartimento SAGAS (Storia, Archeologia, Geografia, Arte e
Spettacolo) , Universit degli Studi di Firenze , Firenze , Italy
Published online: 26 Jul 2013.

To cite this article: Maria Casalini (2013) The family, sexual morality and gender identity
in the communist tradition in Italy (19211956), Modern Italy, 18:3, 229-244, DOI:

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Modern Italy, 2013
Vol. 18, No. 3, 229244,

The family, sexual morality and gender identity in the communist tradition
in Italy (1921 1956)
Maria Casalini*

Dipartimento SAGAS (Storia, Archeologia, Geografia, Arte e Spettacolo), Universita degli Studi di Firenze,
Firenze, Italy
(Received 25 September 2011; final version accepted 11 June 2013)
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This essay will compare the model of the communist family during the era of Palmiro
Togliattis partito nuovo, beginning with the famous svolta di Salerno in 1944, with
the model outlined when the Italian Communist Party (PCdI) was first founded in 1921.
The sources used vary, spanning memoirs, literature, the press and autobiographies of
political activists. The aim of this essay is to expand the research on the communist
tradition; to examine the characteristics of both its theoretical thinking and pedagogic
structure; to explore the nature of its propaganda; and to study the individual
experiences of activists.
Keywords: Italian Communist Party; Palmiro Togliatti; cultural studies; family
history; gender

The period from 1921 to 1956 represented an era of extraordinary change for communism. The
rise of Fascism was the epilogue to the period of struggle that followed the First World War. The
consequences of the Second World War led to a change not just in the strategy of the party, but in
the structure of the PCI itself. The party of professional revolutionaries had become a mass party
and its first priority was to validate itself in the eyes of the public as a democratic force. It aimed
to achieve hegemony over not just Italian society but Italian culture as well (Martinelli 1995).
In line with a change in identity and with the increasing predominance of the auditorium as a
propaganda vehicle, the structure and use of language in the PCI was also destined to change.
The model of the family, which will be explored in this essay, could not remain the same as the
model that existed in the years following the First World War. Both have inconsistencies, but
when compared they seem to contradict each other completely. The complex policies designed
by the party of Bordiga and Gramsci and the break from socialist tradition required a structural
reform of the family institution, in line with the directives of the party guided by the Comintern.
The partito nuovo of Togliatti, on the other hand, came to view the nuclear family not only as a
focus for communist propaganda, but also as the basis of a future society.
Most research concentrated on the identification of the key literature, not on the analysis of
its content. The wealth of the sources available and the strong ideological beliefs that
characterised the approach to political history in Italy, at least until the 1980s, contributed to the


q 2013 Association for the Study of Modern Italy

230 M. Casalini

extraordinary blossoming of the study of the PCI. The ideological debate, the organisational
features and the relationship with the Soviet Union have always been the main focuses for
research. These were usually examined through congress resolutions and official stances held
by the party: Paolo Sprianos work epitomises this approach, a historiography of the activists
(Spriano 1971 1976). The 1990s signalled a new stage of study; Stephen Gundle
experimented for the first time with a cultural approach to the history of Togliattis partito
nuovo. He also made extensive use of memoirs of and interviews with communist activists
(Gundle 1995). From this moment on, the construction of the collective mentality of the
comrades and the analysis of their individual experiences became the centre of attention
(Fantoni 2011). From this point of view, Boarellis work is very important. He concentrated his
research on autobiographies, edited by activists under the guidance of the Communist Party
(Boarelli 2007). Bellassai placed at the centre of his study, Communist Morality, the question
of gender and an analysis of the structure of family relationships in the language of the party,
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in the immediate post-Second World War years (Bellassai 2000). My research intends to go
further, beyond the dramatic censorship of 1956 (Casalini 2010): in this essay I will take a
different road in order to research the clear transformations as well as the substantial continuity
that characterised the universal mentality of Italian communists in the years following the First
and Second World Wars.

From Soviet Russia with love

You are young, you love each other. Everyone has the right to happiness. Therefore live your life . . . .
Do not fear marriage, even though under capitalism marriage was truly a chain of sorrow. Do not be
afraid of having children. Society needs more workers and rejoices at the birth of every child. You do
not have to worry about the future of your child; your child will know neither hunger nor cold . . . .
Communist society takes care of every child and guarantees both him and his mother material and
moral support. Society will feed, bring up and educate the child. At the same time, those parents who
desire to participate in the education of their children will by no means be prevented from doing so.
Communist society will take upon itself all the duties involved in the education of the child, but the
joys of parenthood will not be taken away from those who are capable of appreciating them.
(Alexandra Kollontai, Communism and the Family, Komunistka, No. 2, 1920, and in English in
The Worker, 1920)
This vague statement, as ambiguous as it is triumphalist, represented the post-revolutionary
Russian philosophy of the family in the eyes of Italian socialists, on the eve of the Livorno split
in 1921 that led to the creation of the PCI. To what extent these views on the future of the family
and of sexual morality were actually held and discussed by the intellectuals and members of the
Bolshevik intelligentsia it is difficult to say. Contemporary translations were not on the agenda,
since very few people outside Russia spoke the language. Even Trotskys pamphlet, which was
promptly translated into English in 1923 and published by Methuen under the title Problems of
Everyday Life, was translated into Italian only in 1971. Only a few of Kollontais writings,
probably selected at source, were widely circulated. Despite these limitations, echoes of the
debate that placed the subject of relations between the sexes at the centre of moral education in a
socialist state were heard in Italy. If nothing else, they confirmed the fundamental belief of all
those of varying positions about the inevitable extinction of the family in Soviet Russia
(Waters 1995, 276; Carleton 2005).
In the hard-line vision of the Livorno secessionists, the revolutionary break that was so
important strategically must also influence private morality. Nor was the subject of sexual
morality uncommon in the socialist milieu of the time. The publication in 1884 of Engels
Modern Italy 231

Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which the family is primarily described
as a means of perpetuating private property (Engels 1968), was followed in 1892 by a translation
of August Bebels famous work, Woman and Socialism, which was later to inspire Lenin
himself. The social-democrat leader had already devised a method of freeing women from
domestic chores thanks to the socialisation of social services. The familys function in ensuring
inheritance of wealth would have already been eliminated at the birth of the socialist state:
freeing women from domestic servitude would then deprive the family institution of its practical
function (Bebel 1891; Lenin 1971).
Therefore, the Bolshevik debate on the extinction of the family was based on ground that
had already been covered. Sexuality, the structure of the family and birth control were frequent
topics of discussion among socialists, while always being considered subjects for men only,
and women were never allowed to participate. It is therefore completely unexpected that the
memoirs of a woman would impinge upon the debate between comrades (and even then, only a
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restricted circle of rigorously selected believers). Tina Pizzardo was an exceptional character,
the woman with the raspy voice, the great love of Cesare Pavese, as well as the historical
girlfriend of Altiero Spinelli. Her life appears to be completely different from those portrayed in
the (few) female autobiographies available to us those of Camilla Ravera and Teresa Noce
(Ravera 1973; Noce 1974). Without a doubt she was an exception in the communist experience.
Her self-portrayal defected from the party line and challenged the obligatory conformity of the
communist leadership in the years following the Second World War. This has shielded it from
inevitable reinterpretation.
In order to discuss freely, remembers Tina, we would take long walks outside the city in a group of
friends; in one of our directionless conversations Luiban jumps up and declares that communists
should not go to prostitutes (victims of the bourgeois society etc.).
Is love free? No, if it is thought of like drinking a glass of water when you are thirsty. Yes, if it is true
A discussion on the meaning of true love; everyone said what they thought: to wish another person
well; spiritual harmony; respecting the women for what she is, lets not forget it our campaign; to feel
unhappy when you are apart; ties that are not eternal, but not fleeting either.
On the subject of freedom we all agreed it meant not subordinated to bourgeois conventions.
Overall it seems that free love meant marriage with the right to divorce on request for both women
and men.
. . . Affairs, if there is the possibility, are allowed, but only with women who want to, who agree to it
but never from a commercial motive . . . . It is unacceptable to seduce virgins . . . .
These rules would reach comrades in Rome: translated into Roman slang, they would provoke
belly-laughs and unrepeatable comments. They called us the puritans of Turin. (Pizzardo 1996,
25 26)
Amongst the Romans, an important example is Velio Spano, the future outstanding leader in
the PCI and an intimate friend of Tina. His portrayal by her as a professional revolutionary and
as extremely unprejudiced towards relations with the opposite sex appears not by chance to
contradict the image of the faithful husband and exemplary father described in the years
following the Second World War by his wife, Nadia Gallico (Gallico Spano 2005).
The fact that in those years many casual affairs took place among party members, including
Camilla Ravera, indicates that they held a rather elastic conception of the family (Palumbo 1985,
158).1 Autobiographies often contain unreliable information and communist autobiographies
are by no means exceptions to this rule (Pennetier and Poudal 2002, 247 265). The only certain
232 M. Casalini

observation that can be made is that the level of openness on the subject of sexual relations
differs between those who left the party, Felicita Ferrero and Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, and
those who remained within the party apparatus (Ferrero 1978; Macciocchi 2000). To find firmer
ground, and above all to understand the many uncertainties and contradictions that exist between
the family question, the activists and the message that they wanted to transmit to the outside
world, we must analyse the contemporary communist press.
All the communist newspapers in the early 1920s published articles on the subject of the
family and sexual morality. Both LOrdine Nuovo (which carried Camilla Raveras permanent
column aimed at women) and LAvanguardia, the youth newspaper, occasionally took an
interest in the subject of the family and sexual morality. Some interesting articles on the topic
appeared in Il Soviet, published in Naples under the leadership of Amadeo Bordiga, and in
Azione Comunista, the Florentine newspaper founded by Spartaco Lavagnini. Obviously the
newspaper that paid the most attention to the subject of relations between the sexes was
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Compagna, the communist womens newspaper. The tone of the newspaper seemed to reflect the
different views of Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai. On the one hand, it called women on
behalf of the Comintern to fight alongside their companions for the right to work (Zetkin, La
donna proletaria e il regime capitalista, Compagna, 28 May 1922); on the other hand it
perpetuated the idea of the utopian dream of total liberation from the chains of domestic life
and sexual repression. It was a well-devised agenda in the abstract, but in reality it was
inconclusive and increased the inconsistencies between the ideology, inspired by the Soviet
model, and the simple teaching that was aimed at the Italians (for inconsistencies also in
Bolshevik ideology and practice, see Wood 2000).

Before the revolution

The key elements in the construction of the theory put forward by the communist press in the
early 1920s derived from its total separation of the Soviet family (the socialist family in the post-
revolution future) from the Italian family. In the minds of the professional revolutionaries the
future would see complete equality between the sexes, even if this could only be achieved in a
utopia. However, in the national context, the direct opposition to capitalism and the false
emancipation it offered women led to a stance that had an unmistakably reactionary flavour.
Not only was the socialisation of domestic chores relegated to a post-revolutionary future, but
the insistence on the fact that capitalism engendered sexual inequality even led to the denial that
non-domestic work could be a first step on the path towards womens emancipation. When it
became available to women, the factory experience became simply a double exploitation.
Whatever their activity, women workers could not escape ending up like a machine without
thoughts, increasing the emptiness and aridity of their world, while in the past, although
restricted and closed up in the home, the female personality could in some way express itself, in
a spontaneous and intimate freedom; in this way they participated in the collective life. This is
the conclusion that LOrdine Nuovo came to in 1921 (La rivoluzione sociale e le donne, 2
In short, the theoretical position stressed that the capitalist regime offered no hope for
women; in fact, it increased their inferiority. In reality, in the background of this general
interpretive analysis there was a sense of urgency with regard to the present. Reading between
the lines, the main characteristic of the PCdIs language seems to echo the intense competition
between men and women typical of the workers movement in the difficult economic
circumstances following the First World War. This language tended to use truly misogynistic
Modern Italy 233

terms. According to the communist press, women were guilty of having contributed to the war
industry as passive weapons of the bourgeoisies against the interest of their class (F. Ferrero,
Constatazioni e insegnamenti, Compagna 22 August 1922) and bore responsibility for the low
income of men; Italian women remained tormented by their unconscious actions, a condition
more common among the subspecies that centuries of subservience have irredeemably reduced
to a state of idiocy (R.G., La sottospecie donna, Compagna, 27 August 1922; Lindo, La
donna, Azione Comunista No. 9, 4 March 1922). In other words, to reference Elizabeth Wood,
Italian women appeared systematically trapped in the cliche of the Russian baba (Wood 2000,
38 39, 217).
Victims of ignorance and superstition, and unfamiliar with communist language, for women
the doors to true knowledge remained closed. Even though the work had been always
represented by socialist propaganda as the first source of emancipation, in the Communist press
it assumed an image completely negative, in which the emphasis was on its damages on women;
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this leitmotiv, paradoxically, appeared alongside claims that women had the right to be
employed in all areas of the industry that are not harmful (Il lavoro delle donne nei sindacati,
Compagna, 15 December 1924). While La Difesa delle Lavoratrici, a socialist womens organ,
after a break during the war returned to highlight the value of work in the fight for female
emancipation (V. Ardena, La donna e la disoccupazione, 3 June 1922; A. Baratono, La lotta di
sesso, 18 February 1922), Azione Comunista expressed itself in these terms:
Removing her from within the confines of the home, rendering her independent from men . . . the
emancipation that the bourgeoisie wanted to honour . . . has masculinised women; it has
dishonoured the family, the joy of motherhood . . . . Women need a spiritual education . . . not to
encourage . . . rebellion against the will of men, but to give them a true life lesson . . . to make her
conscious of her role as the mother and as a housewife . . . so that everything in the home is
harmonious and generates serenity in the spirit. (Fannie, La vera educazione, No. 4, 28 January
If the newspaper had not, shortly afterwards, published articles on Sexual relations and the
communist regime that discussed absolute equality between men and women, work as a
source of independence and fulfilment for women, freedom to marry whom they chose and the
collective education of children, you might have thought that it was an underground publication
of Azione Cattolica (Azione Comunista No. 5, 4 February 1922). In reality it demonstrates the
clumsy reproductions of the contradictions in the Bolshevik language, whereby the objective of
total equality between the genders seems to be supplemented by maternal tones and the
celebrated references to domestic life (Wood 2000, 62, 111, 144 145).2 In short, one has the
impression of abstract words glorifying both the role of the female worker (in Soviet society) and
the role of the mother (R. Maier, La donna nella societa comunista, Compagna, 15 December
1924; C.R., Le madri operaie, 16 April 1922; B.B., Maternita, 19 March 1922), grafted
uneasily onto statements determined by the main thrust of trade union strategy, which always
aimed to achieve a family salary for the male working classes (Seccombe 1993).
Any demand that had a flavour of equality or a vague feminist tone was judged outdated.
Men and women have in life their own roles . . . it is a matter of placing them both in conditions
that allow them to carry out, show and use these values, wrote Camilla Ravera (Ravera 1973,
97 115). For the party, for the moment, this was enough. Until there had been a radical
transformation in the productive relations it would not be possible to alter the family dynamic or
revise gender roles. This was essentially the belief of the PCdI.
In order to meet the desire of the male proletariat to free itself from female competition and
at the same time safeguard, in theory, the principle of equality between the sexes, as in the
234 M. Casalini

previous century, the PCI preferred to fight for equal pay (De Luna 1995, 94). In order
simultaneously to lay down the tactical premise of the inevitable revolutionary break with
capitalism, the recommendations of Gramsci apparently already anticipating in essence the
reflections in his Prison Notebooks were to extend the analysis of popular culture and to adapt
to the female outlook, attempting to translate into Italian terms . . . the arguments of Lenin
(Ravera 1973). For a population that was traditionally perceived to be family-centred the
prospect of a Russian-style extinction of the family seemed unacceptable in Italy and it was
debated only amongst the select few. Therefore, communist reflections on the family seemed
right from the start characterised by a clear-cut divide between, on the one hand, the model
shared by party leaders and cadres, and on the other, the principles proposed to the masses.

Discussing the future of the family

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You cannot discuss the true communist morality with the masses, who do not look beyond
their own nose is the conclusion of Francesco Maletto in his column in LAvanguardia: they
would not understand us and they would denounce us as immoral. It is better, therefore, to
renounce any non-conformist expression and to adjust, at least formally, to bourgeois morals,
differentiating, however, between what is indispensable and what is hypocritical. The concept
of marriage as true ties of love, rather than a simple economic commitment, which it is
reduced to in capitalist society, is in his opinion the best way of representing marriage to the
Italian people (La morale dei comunisti, LAvanguardia No. 20, 28 May 1922). The only
opinion on the dissolution of the family in the Soviet context to be published by the communist
press in those years was that of the Frenchman Marcel Cachin, who was at the time the editor of
LHumanite, as though only a foreigner could be allowed to express himself explicitly and
irreverently on the family institution (Discorso di Cachin alle donne comuniste francesi,
LOrdine Nuovo, 24 February 1921). For its part, the young communists newspaper maintained
that the destruction of the family demanded by the Russian communists was nothing but a myth
(R.G., La famiglia proletaria, Avanguardia No. 17, 7 May 1922).
According to Paul Ginsborg, there was always a great difference between the Western and
the early Bolshevik interpretations of the relationship between parents and children (Ginsborg
2002). It appears that when faced with the many uncertainties that seemed to pervade the
debate within the party, the PCI gave the Italian public the reassuring version that confirmed
the solidity of the family institution. LOrdine Nuovo chose to promote the image of the Soviet
Union as a paradise for mothers and children and the Neapolitan newspaper also supported
this idea. They claimed that ease of divorce did not indicate the decline of the family, and that
women should not be worried by it, because the right to work and the solidarity of the
collective safeguarded them. They argued that it was capitalism that was destroying
the family: as work for women increases, the family disintegrates . . . children are abandoned;
the home is transformed into a cold place. Reality was actually the exact opposite of what
many people might have thought: only a socialist society was actually able to ensure the
survival of the family institution, freed from tormenting financial worries and inequalities
between spouses (La famiglia e il lavoro salariato delle donne, Il Soviet No. 24, 21 August
1921). In other words, only the bourgeois idea of the family had to be voted into extinction, not
the family in the traditional sense, as an emotional union between man and woman, naturally
intended for procreation.
Do not fear, working mothers, that communist society wants to take your young sons away
from their parents, tear children from their mothers, notes Alexandra Kollontai in the pages of
Modern Italy 235

LOrdine Nuovo. At the same time she specifies that the task of creating the new man will not be
entrusted to the old-fashioned, egotistical and miserable family . . . but to the appropriate
communist institution, where children will spend most of their day. With respect to the sad
reality of the working-class family in a capitalist regime, where women are forced to look for
work outside the home because the wage of their husband is insufficient . . . and the children are
abandoned to themselves, the advantages of the great universal working family appear
obvious (see also I circoli infantili, Il fanciullo proletario, 10 September 1922). The new
family, she continues, when marriage is free from calculation and speculation will become a
free association based on reciprocated trust and respect, which will ensure happiness and
harmony (La famiglia e la societa comunista, LOrdine Nuovo 11 August 1921;
Leducazione dei fanciulli, Il Soviet No. 26, 4 September 1921).
This is not so different, at least on the surface, from the family described by Gramsci in 1918,
when he spoke about it as an institution that would survive as a moral entity (Un compito
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morale, Il Grido del Populo, 9 February 1918). There are as many ambiguities in the theories
about the future of the family institution as in the definition of the family. For example, the
Bolsheviks, in their romantic definition of the term as described by Preobrazhensky, placed
marriage, the life of the couple, at the centre of their theoretical reflections (Di Biagio 2002); for
Gramsci, on the other hand, it was the exercise of an educators moral duty for men and women to
give life to the creation of the nuclear family that would be the basis for future society. He was
therefore openly against the irrational blind faith in the powers of the state, and against those who
wanted to deprive the family institution of its most authentic function, to bring up humans and to
provide civil education. For this reason, according to the leader of LOrdine Nuovo, it was
necessary to open a dialogue with the masses about the principles of socialist teaching.
But in this case it was not his argument that prevailed. Even after Livorno, the differences
with the supporters of Bordiga were not completely resolved and within the party the stronger
voice was that of Cesare Ravera, who thought that any concessions on the subject of the social
superstructure were a criminal indulgence in utopianism (Utopie morali, LAvanguardia No.
17, 7 May 1922). The effect of the economic transformation introduced by the socialist system
on the subject of relations between the sexes would have remained the cornerstone of the young
PCdI: it was therefore useless to waste too much energy on small talk about a premature analysis
of socialist morality, as the Turinese loved to do. Even on the burning issue of children the
preference was to resort to the vague formula based on the new pivotal role of the state. So the
collective education of children seems to be the only firmly agreed principle that characterised
the life choices of the comrades during the clandestine years. Children of activists experienced
long periods of absence and stays in improvised refuges, like the former cement plant in
Fontainebleau, run by Madame Bouda, where the children of Togliatti, Montagnana and other
communist leaders lived. Nella Marcellino, who once stayed there, recently recalled the
Often you forget that every activist that risked their freedom in Italy or chose asylum had loved ones,
a mother, and often children. Even though it was painful, most people understood the choice. If a
comrade claimed that he could not take part in political work, because I have a family, dad would
invariably reply, Gramsci also has a wife and children. This generation of activists suffered . . .
long separations. The children, especially if they were small, suffered a lot. These children, even if
no one ever remembers them, were perhaps those most affected by the consequences of Fascism.
(Marcellino 2009, 17)
For party members everything that was regarded as private life came second, and the innovations
of the party leadership and the mass party in the years following the Second World War would
236 M. Casalini

be most evident here. Above all the image of women would be profoundly changed. The brief
illusion of equality that followed the Liberation had ended. Female activists were required,
first, to play a reassuring role for the other women and so, in contrast to the comrades of the past,
they would return to their roles as mothers (as well as wives). The biographical notes of the
communist candidates for the Constituent Assembly are revealing. It seems that a fundamental
requisite for women running for election was to present themselves to the Italians as women of
the home, whose first task was to look after their children (Le mamme romane voteranno per
Nadia Gallico Spano e Marcella Lapiccirella, LUnita, 16 May 1946)). Marina Sereni was
described by LUnita as an affectionate mother (Un esempio per tutte le donne, LUnita, 31
January 1952). In reality, even the women activists of the partito nuovo, as Nadia Spano
remembered, would have been forced to place the interests of the party above the interests of
their private lives, but this was known only to a limited circle of activists (Gallico Spano 2005).
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For a happy family, peace and work

The years following the Second World War can be described as an ode to maternity. The public
role of the family found itself at the centre of political debate. It was not the PCI that initiated
this, but the Christian Democrats (DC) when they announced their crusade to restore the home.
In the 1946 general election the DC presented the Catholic vote as a necessary duty for the
defence of the family (R. Gatti, Donna, devi salvare il focolare e laltare, Il Settimanale per la
Donna, 26 May 1946; C. Salvi, Una calamita dopo tante altre: dibattiti sul divorzio, 10 17
February1946). This message was directed mainly at the female electorate, whose vote was
uncertain, and they became a decisive battleground for the two political forces. Inevitably the
tone of the controversy was heated and whilst the streets were plastered with posters with
dredged-up images of communists stealing children from the arms of their mothers, the partito
nuovo tried in every way to reassure the Catholic electorate. For this reason, in the Constituent
Assembly, the communists actually voted in favour of Article 7, which ratified the Lateran Pacts
that guaranteed, as described by Rita Montagnana, total indifference towards the issue of divorce
(Montagnana 1945, 4 5).
Since the lives of both Togliatti and Longo (to mention only the most important leaders of
the party) seemed to openly contradict the principle of the insolubility of marriage, it is difficult
to say how many of those in the PCdI really believed in and adhered to the official stance held by
the party at that time. It is clear that all the parties tended to support the stability of the family
institution in Italy in the post-Second World War years in order to guarantee a mass following
(De Luna 1994, 754 757). Supporting the family institution was an important objective for the
Communist Party for another important reason: the ties between a father and son were seen as
the principal method of increasing support for the party. This has led sociologists to describe the
party as self-generating (Accornero, Mannheimer and Sebastiani 1983, 187).
The PCIs support for the family was not only expressed in defensive terms. A series of
initiatives were carried out to reinforce family cohesion. The Feste dellUnita assumed the
characteristics of countryside festivals aimed at bringing parents and children together, while
the Week of the Female Comrade was organised around the slogan protection of the Italian
family (Pasti 1979). The Day of Family and Peace, organised in 1949, was nothing more than
the elaboration of the slogan for a happy family: peace and work of the second congress of the
Italian Womens Union in 1947 (Noi Donne No. 17, 15 October 1947; Casalini 2005a, 194, 237).
These organisational methods aimed at women seemed to be often directed at the wife: the
wife of the emigrant, the wife of the prisoner, the wife of the miner etc.
Modern Italy 237

If the goal was to support, on a traditional level, the version put forward by the Church and
shared by the majority of Italians, in which the family was a hierarchical institution with naturally
predetermined roles, the model proposed, at least in theory, appears to be a type of family
morality. The communist interpretation of the family (in which the female role was pivotal) was of
an institution that was banned from the party and which carried the harmful and selfish implications
of bourgeois individualism. However different the historical context, the theory does not seem so
different from that of Gramsci, whose thinking, as has been noted, even though re-elaborated,
would have asserted the fundamental national character of the tradition of the partito nuovo.
In 1944 Togliatti stated: When a women enters into political life she does not necessarily
lose her femininity or her attributes as a woman, a wife and a mother (Per la participazione
della donna alla vita nazionale, Noi Donne No. 3, September 1944 and Togliatti 1965, 39). The
home, already enveloped in an atmosphere of solidarity, became for the communists of the
partito nuovo too the natural habitat for women. To safeguard the image that was projected
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mainly in the private sphere, women were given the task of organising a different type of
politics, the politics of daily life as defined by Luciana Viviani, which centred on the
participation in and care of children (Viviani 1994, 107). On the strength of this truism, shared
by Catholics and communists, the welfare system adopted by the First Republic would be based
on the principle of family roles assigned by the head of the family (Saraceno 2003, 163; Ferrera
2006, 39 43). Nothing was more evident than the fact that work, intended to bring happiness
to the family in the famous slogan of 1947, was to be reserved for men, while women, just as at
the beginning of the nineteenth century, remained as the guardians of peace, which was seen as a
natural offshoot from their maternal vocation (Gabrielli 2005, 131). The Noce/Di Vittorio bill
concentrated on the issue of maternity and, linguistically, assimilated housewife into the
category of worker. It proposed a law that defended maternity for working mothers, but
actually presented housewife as an occupation, which is very different to Fascist legislation (Il
partito comunista per le lavoratrici madri, Quaderno dellattivista No. 10, September 1947;
T. Noce, Una sola legge per tutte le lavoratrici madri, Noi donne No. 22, 4 July 1948).
The post-war years were portrayed as the golden years for the housewife, both outside and
inside the party: Italys female employment rate had never been so low and the presence of the
housewife amongst the members of the PCI had never been so high.3 Husbands would often
sign up their wives without them knowing, which was a practice that even the official statistician
for the PCI, Celso Ghini, criticised in Quaderno dellattivista (Piu attenzione al reclutamento
fra le donne, No. 5, 1 March 1952). Therefore, it is difficult to determine how much the data on
party membership actually reflect the level of female consensus.4 We can, instead, easily deduce
the type of relationship that existed between husband and wife in many communist families.
For many female comrades, political activism in the ranks of Togliattis party should have
been an experience of subjective growth and political awareness which, bolstered by the
Liberation war, would have resulted in a series of demands for more equality (R. Montagnana,
La donna nella lotta antifascista e nella ricostruzione, LUnita, 9 May 1945; Che cose il
sindacato libero, Noi Donne, 25 October 1944). In spite of this, from 1946, even left-wing
women were abandoning the equality battlefield in order to support the policy of separate
spheres assigned to them by the Secretary (Casalini 2005a, 88). Private life, from what we can
understand, reflected the party model of gender roles. Both in the family and in the party,
womens autonomy in respect of their male comrades (whether as the income-provider or as an
ideological teacher) seemed to be very limited. The example of Grazia Tagliapietra is symbolic
of this: one of the few armed female partisans, depicted in 1943 as tall and serious, with an
alpine cap . . . and a long 91 rifle in hand, she was compelled, as soon as she married the
238 M. Casalini

functionary Giuseppe Gaddi, to put on once again the clothes of the invisible and silent angel of
the hearth (Casellato 2004, 68).
The images that can be found in the sources, even though for the most part invented, are
tailored to suit popular expectations and to reflect the collective mentality. This makes them
illuminating in studying the construction of gender identity and the family model. There is no
doubt that while the image of a communist paradise overcrowded with saints is a stereotype,
it also complies with common sense. Although the model was always that of the nuclear family,
if we read between the lines the image of patriarchy appears to be more important. It is not a
coincidence that in Il Gioco dei Regni, Emilio Serenis daughter describes him as a patriarch
(Sereni 2007, 348), while the family of Papa Cervi, the protagonist of the memoirs used in a
widespread propaganda campaign in the mid-1950s, was a true patriarchal family (Cervi 1955).
Similarly, even though she realised that it was outdated, Ines Pisoni immediately sensed the
best kind of family feeling in the Muccinellis large farmhouse near Ravenna, where she was
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sheltered during the Resistance years (Pisoni 1990, 162).

Variations on the Sereni model

In spite of the trademark Soviet elements (Serebrennikov 1945), in the concept of woman all the
weight of socialist tradition seems to resurface, dripping with positive philosophy, as well as
perfectly in line, incidentally, with Lenins pronouncements in 1917 (Wood 2000, 38). The
dominant model remains in essence that of the good shepherd: the working man who, on
returning home, finds himself inevitably in endless arguments with his wife, who protests
because he has gone on strike and makes a fuss to prevent him from going to the party meeting
(Casalini 2005b). And the task of converting her to socialism was never easy. At times women
could make your hands itch, observed Concetto Marchesi, participating in the debate opened by
Ruggero Grieco in Noi Donne on the subject of domestic violence (Marchesi, Nemmeno con un
fiore, 11 October 1953; Bellassai 2000, 113).
Certainly, Emilio Sereni did not use such rough manners to convert Marina (Xenia
Silberberg) to his secular religion. But I giorni della nostra vita has been dwelt on too often in
elaborating exegeses on the sacred text of the activist couple (Sereni 1955; on the stereotype of
communist masculinity see also the novel by Arpino 1958). Certain aspects disclosed in the
memoirs of Ines Pisoni are even more interesting. Mi chiamero Serena is also an anti-Fascist
story; Serena, like Xenia, did not know anything about communism, she also from a lower
level worshipped His image, that of the Communist, the Real Man.
What is truly striking is the longevity of this model, so durable that it appears timeless and
unchanged even after 30 years. The canvas of history, however, is different, and Mario,
compared with Emilio, appears even more saint-like, as he dies a martyr.
After having read Marina Sereni, and having learned from their daughter Clara that the text
was revisited and corrected in an ad hoc manner by her father, I thought I knew the quintessential
communist male; god-like and heroic (Bellassai 2000, 209 210; Casalini 2010, 255 257. For
the Russian dimension, see Petrone 2002, 172 193). But it was not like this. The Mario of Ines
dominates the Emilio of Xenia. No one nowadays would fall in love with Emilio, but some
women would not be able to resist the charms of Mario, a communist hero in the Hollywood
tradition. Handsome, surly, but a lover of women: masculine, but faithful and sincere; as
sensitive and respectful as he was fearless; ready to give his life for others.
I defended as best I could my small private world, in which I was convinced of true ideas and
things, but . . . he brought me irresistibly and, at times, with violence, to discover the contradictions
Modern Italy 239

and to become conscious of my petit-bourgeois mentality . . . he thrilled me with intense logic and
the profound sense of truth that I found in all his arguments . . . . I spoke little . . . he would look at me
with that light in his eyes; he who had known how to give me, right from the moment we met, the
certainty of having met a real man, a man who you could give your life to without ever regretting it
. . . I still dont know how much my new direction came from my conscience or from my feelings for
him. (Pisoni 1990, 27, 33, 44 45)
Although he was hardly one of Winckelmanns perfect male sculptures, the communist male was
still an ideal stereotype. It is no accident that Mario says to Ines you are too feminine when, at
first, he wants to keep her out of the partys clandestine organisation (Pisoni 1990, 55, 67).
However, the ideal could also become real, as in the case of Rosy and Tonino, whose weighty
correspondence is a rare pearl that has been brought to light by Laura Rossi (291 letters written
between 1951 and 1953, in Rossi 2010, 157). He was a working-class communist from Genoa
and she was an educated Catholic from Romagna:
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Our future life will be interwoven by physical and moral ties. You must grow, meet the world and
escape from the leaden casing that weighs you down. I love you so much, openly and faithfully . . .
you should be to me as I will be to you. You should participate in my hobbies, in my walks and in my
reading. You really will be my very own little wife.
Here Tonino expressed all his egalitarian zeal and this is how Rosy responds:
You have become my only goal, my every thought and my every desire revolves around you. I will
give you all of myself, absolutely, and I will always and only be your woman, as you desire, I will
follow you wherever you go, talking to you continually about us . . . . Now I have faith in life and . . .
I owe everything to you.

Other men, other women and other families

However, not all communists were like Tonino. First-hand accounts from young party cadres
show, on more than one occasion, an attitude towards the opposite sex that is quite different from
his. All of them shared with Tonino the same belief that men were superior, but generally their
openness to dialogue was different, i.e. very limited. In the autobiographies of students from one
of the party schools in Bologna, in the early 1950s, it is not unusual for a comrade to admit that
he considers women as merchandise, as a simple instrument of pleasure (Francesco B.).
Leaving aside the idea that a democratic couple based on such attitudes is not very
convincing, we should remember that for the party leaders the family meant something quite
different from the belief of the masses: in party schools the reigning model, at least until 1956,
was still that of the professional revolutionary. If on a propaganda level the communists
continued to sing hymns to the unity of the family, for the activist the first priority was political
work. The party believed that selfish actions of parents should broaden into a wider solidarity:
La Madre, a book that circulated widely among Italian communists in the post-war years,
summarises this theory.
Moreover, those who entertain the notion that communist political language is coherent
would be rather confused if they read the documents from the Association of Pioneers (API), the
PCI organisation aimed at the youth. The same family that elsewhere is described as an oasis of
good feeling is here depicted in sombre tones. The backwardness . . . the lowering of the spirit
of life, the unemployment, the lack of adequate social provisions . . . [mean that] in the
proletarian family children are inevitably abandoned to themselves or subjected to a restrictive
authority, characterised by the rules of archaic conformity, argued the API Secretary at the
national congress in 1954 (Pagliarini 1954, 61). For the new generations only an education of
240 M. Casalini

collective spirit, like the one taught in the USSR, continued to be considered educational
(Attwood 1999, 115 125; Fitzpatrick 1999, 142 163).
Even the portrayal of the Pagliarini family, so different from the official stance of the partito
nuovo, makes up only one of the components of an ideology that appears to be multi-layered.
It is difficult to fully understand it and above all it is impossible to verify how the models
proposed from on high were actually received by the lower echelons of the party. The limit to
how much we can know remains insurmountable: a private memory simply does not exist.
Both in written accounts and in interviews now as then we can only catch the occasional
glimpse. To conceive of a personal dimension to existence was a sin in the Communist
Church. Therefore, even the interviews with the workers in the 1950s, like the autobiographies
compiled in the party schools, or the recent collection of oral accounts, are limited, in general, to
providing information about family origins: sometimes they describe in detail the first meeting
with their future spouses, but they do not reveal anything about the couples daily life (Vallini
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1957; Caiti and Guarnieri 1996; Zavattini 2007).

The only thing we know for sure is that the communist family appeared to be a single-parent
family. Not that other husbands were particularly present within the domestic sphere, but for
communists the political responsibilities, in the union and in factory meetings, were
extraordinarily pressing and were prioritised above the family. The activists real family
remained the Party. I was always out and about! . . . I was away during the day, at night,
continually and therefore the time I could dedicate to my family was very limited, states
Ferdinando Benatti, union militant in the CGIL in Modena, while Franco Pasini, who was busy
with the party and in the union, remembers having endless arguments . . . [with his wife] because
I was never at home . . . . For me the party was everything! . . . even now I am never at home!
says Renato Botti (Bertuccelli 2004, 99, 433, 162). The accounts are monotonously similar.
The absence of the father and husband did not mean that women would have more control at
home. In fact it meant the opposite. My impression is that, in open contradiction with the image
of Togliattis supportive family (and the egalitarian model of the USSR), if anything it
reinforced the role of the patriarch. It was as if subjection to the party, as well as giving the
communist a beneficial sensation of relief from the evils of life (Mafai 1996, 52 53), invested
the father/husband with a kind of reflected authority, measured in part by the obedience of his
wife. Gender roles remained unchangeable and, paradoxically, at a time when women were
finally becoming citizens, it appeared even more urgent for comrades to control their votes,
which they thought were at risk of being manipulated by the priests. Even at the beginning of the
1950s, the Vie Nuove PCI weekly paper continued to play this tune: women must obey the
husband in all ways, after they have sworn their faith at the altar (Fedelta anche nel voto, in Vie
Nuove No. 21, 25 May 1952). The Catholic Church said the same thing, though in this case
exceptions were considered; in the privacy of the voting booth women should, if necessary,
disobey their husbands and vote according to their own conscience for the Christian
Democrats, naturally. In this way they would save their souls (Magnani 1992, 203).

Analysing the family in the communist tradition is very complicated; slogans are contradictory
and overlapping, and they are often at odds with the unacknowledged but long-established and
profound tradition of thought in the working-class movement. The Great and Second World
Wars had a different effect on gender relationships; this contributed to the substantial correction
of the 1920s concept of the family by Togliattis PCI. The two wars, in Italy as in France, were
Modern Italy 241

followed by a period when traditional gender roles inside the family were re-established
(Thebaud 1999, 12 25), but the two post-war contexts had diametrically opposite impacts on the
perception of gender relations (Higonnet and Higonnet 1987). The trench war had separated
men from women and, as Mosse has observed, it caused a strong resentment towards wives and
girlfriends who had been spared the horrors of trench warfare (Mosse 1998, 67 68; Fussell
2000, iii). The Second World War, on the other hand, was a completely different experience,
which stimulated a spirit of solidarity between the sexes. It is well known that this was a war with
more civilian than military victims; when death fell from the sky directly on the cities it united
the destinies of men and women. In the political and institutional void that followed, the family
represented for Italians, and not only for them, the only trustworthy point of reference.
For this reason the golden era of the family was celebrated throughout Europe (Lawrence-
Zuniga 2003), and the new families did not seem so different from those of the past. For a party
whose main objective had become to increase consensus, the way it looked at the asymmetric
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structure of the traditional Italian family, in the context of the years following the Second World
War, was, at least formally, completely different from the revolutionary ideas of the past.
Even in the USSR, the approach to the subject of the family had undergone radical change in
the 1930s (Hoffmann 2003, 97). If in the previous decade the Italian communists had debated the
texts of Kollantai, in the years following the Second World War Makarenkos A Book for
Parents was the vademecum for all communist parties, worldwide (Makarenko 1950). The
family did not appear any more as an obsolete institution, a product of the capitalist system of
production that was therefore destined to a natural dissolution in a socialist state. It was seen as
the best method of integrating the individual into the state.
The differences, in conclusion, that separated the world-view of the young Livorno
secessionists from the Stalinist PCI activists in the years following the Second World War are
macroscopic. However, definitions of relations between the sexes in general and the concept of
the family in particular overrode the differences: it seems that some elements of continuity
between the old and new parties existed. In both periods, for example, there was a gap
between official theory and popular propaganda.
On the one hand, at the ideological level the party claimed to support sexual equality, typical
of early socialist thinking and subsequent Soviet theory. On the other hand, during interventions
in practical questions in Italy, strong differences appear in the delineation of gender roles, which
are now based on the family model from the workers movement, promoting the image of the
male breadwinner (Rose 1997, 193 210). In the years following the First World War the official
stance was very critical of the unfair competition that women created for men in the job
market, while continuing to glorify the role of the mother. In the years following the Second
World War, after having hushed up, in the space of a few months, the demands put forward by
groups in defence of women workers rights, the partys full energy was directed towards the
protection of motherhood.
The parallels between the two phases seem clear. Moreover, there seems to be substantial
duplicity between the behaviour model generally adopted by the leaders of the party and the
model that was propagated among the party members. In the 1920s a restricted circle of
intellectuals debated a new concept of the family and sexual morality that aimed at radical
change in the relationship of a couple, while a more reassuring message was reserved for the
masses, telling them, if a little vaguely, that the family structure would be safe in the communist
society of the future. Similarly, after the Second World War the PCI developed its organisational
structure to become the party for the family, but the leadership cadres remained professional
revolutionaries (Martino 2008, 45). As with the old PCdI, for the party leaders and cadres the
242 M. Casalini

role of the family was substantially downgraded. The real family was the Party and the main goal
of the Party continued to be, until the second half of the 1950s, to educate the new generations.

Translated by Rachael Kerr

1. Furthermore, the portrayal of herself that can be found in Diario di Trentanni seems very similar to the
story of Rossana Rossanda (2005): together they are the only glimpses of private life during childhood
and adolescence before the life choice, after which there was only true politics.
2. On the productive character in Soviet society, of the simple role of the mother and on pronatalism, see
among many, Hoffmann (2000); Neary (1999); Davies (2001).
3. On female workers, see Bettio (1988, 52). As regards membership of the PCI, from 33.5% in 1946, the
housewife membership rose by 11 percentage points in a year; in 1947 it had risen to 44.2% (in 1951 it
would be 50.2%) (Istituto di Studi e Ricerche Carlo Cattaneo, 1968, 359.)
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4. In 1945 women constituted 15.62% of the members; in 1946, 19.48% and in 1948, 22.18% (Ghini,

Notes on contributor
Maria Casalini is Associate Professor of History at the University of Florence. She is the author of a
number of books and articles on post Second World War Italian social history: Le donne della sinistra
1944 1948, Rome: Carocci, 2005; Tra guerra e dopoguerra. Donne e uomini nel movimento operaio,
in Mondi femminili in centanni di sindacato, edited by G. Chianese, 43 95, Rome: Ediesse, 2008;
Famiglie comuniste. Identita pubbliche e vita quotidiana nellItalia degli anni Cinquanta, Bologna: il
Mulino, 2010; Ritratti di famiglia nellItalia degli anni Cinquanta. Luniverso comunista, in Famiglie del
Novecento. Conflitti, culture e relazioni, by E. Asquer, M. Casalini, A. Di Biagio and P. Ginsborg, 165
181, Rome: Carocci, 2010; Da Cavour a Lina Merlin. Prostituzione, identita nazionale e ruoli di genere, in
Snodi pubblici e privati nella storia contemporanea, 2012, No. 9: 18 44. She is currently working on a
study of the construction of gender in Italian cinema during the period of transition from Fascism to the
First Republic.

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