At the end of the Second World War, the two victorious superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, embarked on a military and ideological confrontation for the future of Europe and, ultimately, of the world. This rivalry, described already in 1945 by George Orwell as a Cold War, predicated a struggle to the end between Communism and Capitalism. It ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the undisputed victory of neoliberalism. The whole period, thanks to the balance of terror, enjoyed a bipolar stability that French sociologist Raymond Aron defined as «peace impossible – war improbable» and was characterised by three momentous upheavals: decolonisation, democratisation and globalisation. Winston Churchill noted, in his speech delivered on 5 March 1946 at Fulton, Missouri, that Europe was divided by an ideological as well as a physical Iron Curtain running from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.
The superpowers’ confrontation involved also countries fallen within their sphere of influence as a result of the Yalta Agreement, fracturing their societies into two antagonistic camps and setting in motion a witch-hunt. The most troubling expression of which, on the Eastern side was the imposition of Soviet rule, while on the Western side McCarthyism was its most emblematic manifestation. Thus, the Cold War created a situation that Raymond Aron aptly defined «an international civil war».
In Italy, people militating in the Communist Party and its «front» organisations, in Communist-controlled trade unions, or considered «fellow travellers» by the dominant Christian-Democratic governments were the object of strict security surveillance and in some instances were dismissed from their jobs. On 15 July 1948, the Vatican issued a decree that excommunicated those who were propagating «the materialistic and anti-Christian teachings of Communism». In allegedly «Catholic» Italy, especially in rural areas and in the South, people suspected of harbouring Left-Wing tendencies were frequently refused a letter of recommendation from Parish priests, a necessary prerequisite to gain employment.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Italians who wanted to emigrate to Australia were denied a visa if they or their next-of-kin were known to be Communists or sympathisers for that doctrine. Already in November 1951, following the signing of the Italo-Australian Migration Agreement, Australian diplomats in Rome requested that Italian Questori (Heads of Police) supply information on prospective emigrants and their close relatives as to their membership or «sympathy» towards the PCI and its youth organisations. As it was impossible to screen all applicants, people who avoided asio’s security checks carried out at Rome’s Embassy, once in Australia and found to be Communists, were denied naturalisation. During the 1950s and 1960s the names of the most active ones were included in the Register of Aliens, to be interned in case of an outbreak of war against the Soviet Union. By April 1955 asio estimated that 982 British Subjects and 4,665 «aliens», among them a number of Italians, would need to be detained. This precautionary measure was maintained throughout the Cold War years, although the number of alleged «subversives» decreased with the passing of years. In May 1971, of the 116 people listed in the nsw Register, sixteen were Italian.
In Italy, as pointed out by historian Silvio Pons, President of the Gramsci Foundation in Rome, the Cold War was often fought, and decided, on issues of income distribution, technological change and mass culture. Most Communists assumed that they could wed revolution to democracy, and containment of Communism had more of a religious and political meaning than a military one. Above all, in Italy the long-term global transformations, above mentioned, that so radically altered its society, culture and the economy, made the Cold War look increasingly obsolete and irrelevant from the late 1960s onwards.
Not so in Australia. Anti-communism permeated the life of the country. During the 1950s and 1960s conservative political leaders fostered the ideology of anti-communism, even after the defeat of the Referendum held on 22 September 1951, advocating the banning of the Communist Party of Australia. In 1963 a world map was produced, showing the countries where Communism had been successful. Out from these countries thrust red arrows toward an isolated and defenseless Australia, a domino inevitably to be captured by Communism’s unyielding push through Southeast Asia. It is during this period that hundreds of thousands of Italian migrants came to this country, to escape, among other things, the ravages of the Second World War, the Cold War intractable fighting and unemployment. By 1971 some 289.476 first generation Italians were residing in Australia. Some of them, allegedly a few thousands, and their number cannot be accurately documented, had been pci card-carrying members or sympathisers.
Surprisingly, only a very small number of them joined the Communist Party of Australia. They shunned it because it was considered too dogmatic, rather than pragmatic, too disinterested in the migrants’ problems, a «sectarian entity», as Silvio Pons characterised it. To the few emigrants joining the cpa’s «Italian faction», that is the Party Branch formed exclusively by Italian migrants, Australia hopefully meant an escape from political discrimination – a hope that was soon dashed – as well as the quest for economic security that eluded them in Italy, freedom from exploitation previously suffered at the hand of the signori, a future for their children and, as the Secretary of Sydney’s pci Branch quipped in 1978, yes, a home, a car and a television set.
They were not interested in, nor understood or wanted to understand the ideological diatribes between the Party’s pro-Chinese and the pro-Russian factions, nor the difference between internationalism and eurocommunism. Their Communism was grounded in day-to-day realities, and when they professed their belief in ‘revolution’, it was imbued with a religiosity that characterised their earlier faith in the village patron saint. The lack of commitment shown by Italian migrants towards the cpa depended also on the fact that the Australian Party could not claim to be representing the whole working class of Australia. As Enzo Modica, a pci staffer who visited Australia in 1977 observed, «probably the real cause of the difficulties lies in the political, organic limits of the CPA, to which our comrades react perhaps with excessive arrogance for belonging to a ‘great Party’».
Already in 1954 some migrants wrote to the PCI leader, Palmiro Togliatti, asking him to send to Australia a high ranking member who could help and guide them to form a separate organisation. Nothing came of it and during the 1950s and 1960s the same plea was repeatedly made by other Italian migrants, albeit unsuccessfully. In 1962 also the Communist Party of Australia requested that one of the PCI officers come to this country to proselytize among his nationals. However, its motivation was ambivalent. In 1964 the CPA suffered a damaging scission, when Maoist supporters formed a splinter party. Again, in 1971, loyalists to the Moscow line left the CPA and founded the Socialist Party of Australia. Faced with a dwindling membership, at that time totalling approximately 5,000, the Party was looking at the Italian community as a potential pool for new recruits. However, its plea for the PCI to send to Australia someone who could rally Italian migrants to the Communist cause and, hopefully, encourage them to join the CPA could not be realised, because during the 1950s and 1960s the Australian Government was barring entry to the country of known Communists, unless they were British Subjects from Commonwealth countries.
The situation for the PCI in Italy was different. The Party, following a pragmatic, not a dogmatic line, was attracting wide popular support. At the 1968 elections, 8.5 million voted communist, and 1.4 million people were Party members. It is at this time that the PCI took an interest in Italians abroad. In line with its policy of creating worldwide Party cells and «front» organisations, the PCI strove to mobilise Italians abroad in order to extend its influence and power, attract their vote and that of their relatives in Italy and defend their rights. The Party was cognisant of the strategic, political importance to grow numerically. In a circular letter, Ugo Pecchioli, Head of the Organisation Section, stressed that enrolment of new members had to be «rapidly increased» because «without a much larger number of members we cannot be present everywhere», that is, the Party would not achieve the hegemonic presence, be it aspirational or totalitarian is a matter for debate, that it was striving to achieve.
In November 1967 the Party’s independent member Carlo Levi, painter and author of the acclaimed novel Christ Stopped at Eboli, founded FILEF, the Federation of Italian Migrants and their Families, tasked to defend migrants’ rights and their cultural and linguistic retention. Incidentally, his novel describes life in the God-forsaken village of Eboli in Campania, where he had been confined by the Regime because of his anti-Fascism. Australia was one of the countries where FILEF began its activities in 1972 and attempted to make its mark. At the same time, branches of INCA, the Italian communist trade union organisation, were formed in Sydney and Melbourne, to advise migrants on their industrial rights. Following pressing requests from the CPA and from a group of communist migrants, in September 1971 the PCI established in Sydney the Autonomous Federation of the PCI in Australia, just before the Whitlam Labor Government repealed some of the draconian policies enacted by previous Conservative governments.
It is interesting to note that the awakening of the PCIs interest in Italians abroad, mainly motivated by reasons of national politics, took place at a time of considerable international upheaval in the communist world. One has only to remember the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Sino-Soviet frosty relations concerning the Vietnam War, the Sino-Soviet border conflict in 1969 on the Ussuri River, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, the Sino-Vietnamese war in February-March 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. These events, as well as the ideological tussle between Moscow and national Communist Parties, marked the beginning of the decline of the myth of Communism in the minds and hearts of some of those followers who had persistently believed in it, even after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the PCUS in 1956. It is idiosyncratic that the PCI endeavoured to increase its membership, by looking abroad, at a time when many of its long-time members, now disaffected, were questioning the Party’s policies at home, especially after the Prague Spring and the Italian students revolt in 1968.
Also idiosyncratic is the fact that the PCI ‘discovered’ Italians in Australia only at the end of their mass migration to this continent, and not during the earlier period of their settlement, when they most needed assistance, guidance and support. One of the reasons lies in the fact that the Cold War years were characterised by unremitting surveillance of Communist supporters by the Commonwealth government. asio kept files on every member of the PCI leadership in Sydney and on the Party’s rank-and-file activists. Throughout the Cold War years, information gathered by spies and agents recruited among PCI members in Sydney was recorded in these files.
However, by the mid-1970s the CPA ceased to be a high priority for asio because it operated independently of both the Soviet and the Chinese Communist Parties. Evidence of it can be found in the records of telephone interceptions made by asio during the Fraser years (1975-1983). While telephone intercepts of Soviet officers and staff of Soviet block countries in Australia totalled 86.8% and those of the Moscow-leaning Socialist Party of Australia 2.4%, interception of CPA conversations, including those carried out by members of the PCI in Australia, amounted to a mere 1.2%. By the late 1970s, ASIO, although an in-built anti-Communist culture was still predominant among its staff, struggled with coming to terms with the declining significance of the CPA and its increasingly marginalised splinter groups. These included groups that had «come to security notice» and needed to be studied to establish the nature of their objectives, among them foreign communist parties such as the Italian and Spanish Communist Parties in Australia. These Parties were advocating the eventual coming of the revolution and were suspected to advance their aims by working towards the political and economic disruption of the country. However, in 1979 ASIO reported that «the PCI and FILEF do not like the word ‘revolution’. The PCI in Australia will utilise whatever parliamentary processes they can to suit their own needs». By 1980 ASIO was beginning to recognise that the CPA was no longer a source of concern regarding violent protests. In September 1980 the Organisation declared that, as the CPA was not a subversive entity, it should no longer be considered a target and by mid-1986 it ceased covert coverage of the CPA. Concerning Sydney’s PCI branch, ASIO, which still had on its payroll an informer within that Branch, in February 1985 advised the Commonwealth that the PCI no longer was a security risk.
Research carried out at the Italian State Central Archive in Rome, the PCI archives deposited at the Gramsci Foundation in Rome, the CPA and FILEF Archives at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, FILEF’s other archives at the Leichhardt Library and ASIO’s files at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra reveal that the presence of an Italian Communist organisation in Australia was of minor importance to both the Italian and the Australian Communist Parties. Only on 25 May 1965 the CPA appointed one of its high-ranking officers, Joe Palmada, to muster Italians’ support for the Party. The Party’s contacts with the PCI, although on the whole friendly, were superficial and never conclusively dealt with the crucial issue of where the allegiance of Italian card-carrying CPA as well PCI members lay. The PCI’s leader with responsibility for foreign affairs and contacts with other communist parties, Giancarlo Pajetta, although he visited fellow parties all over the world, never came to Australia and never entertained formal relations with the leadership of the CPA. This task was entrusted to his brother, Giuliano Pajetta, who was responsible for the Party’s Emigration Section and who between 1963 and 1981 visited Australia seven times.
To Italian Communists in Sydney the reasons why the PCI was present in Australia were clear. «Our Party is always present there, where there are Italian workers», they stated. «We consider Italian migrant workers as part, not only of the working class of their new country of residence, but also as an integral part of the Italian working class. Thus, our task is to unite Italian workers abroad with Italian workers at home, in order to struggle together for the realisation of the great project of renewing Italy, strengthening its democracy and laying the foundations for Socialism…the conditions for the return of many migrant workers to Italy will also be created». It is worth noting that the report spoke of Socialism in Italy, not in Australia, of return of migrants to their homeland rather than of integration in the Australian society. This statement flew in the face of the concept of workers’ solidarity, even of the dominant ethos of ‘assimilation’ to which the CPA also undeniably subscribed.
In dealing with the issue of collaboration with the CPA, Sydney’s Italian Communists stated that «this, however, does not mean that we cannot cooperate with the CPA. We, as Italian Communists and members of the PCI, want to cooperate with you, even better than what has been possible in the past». Pajetta conditioned this statement of intent by instructing Sydney’s PCI members «to maintain maximum independence, and not to be involved in a factional game. The greatest help that we can give to those who in the CPA seem more ‘reasonable’ is to work well in the Italian environment and among emigrants in general, strengthen our party organisation, make our positions better understood, especially the way we do politics».
No wonder that when Diego Novelli, Mayor of Turin and editor-in-chief of that city’s edition of the PCI paper L’Unita’ arrived in Sydney in 1971 and held extensive discussions with the CPA leadership he noticed that there was no «cordial relationship between Italian and Australian Party members». Novelli ascribed this frostiness to the PCA’s fear of an autonomous Italian Communist organisation and to «some exasperated form of anti-sovietism» on the part of CPA leaders. He suggested to his Australian comrades that «sarebbe bene che non rompessero troppo le scatole» (it would be a good thing for them not to be a pain in the neck).
Novelli’s visit to Australia was instrumental in the establishment in September 1971 of the Autonomous Federation of the PCI in Australia. However, from its inception, the Federation was marred by ideological division between the supporters of Moscow’s oriented Socialist Party of Australia and those advocating a Socialism with a human face. The dispute was resolved with the intervention of Giuliano Pajetta, «mister fix-it», as ASIO called him, who came to Sydney in 1973, dissolved the Federation and ousted the rebellious elements from the leadership of the new, scaled-down organisation.
The new situation enabled the PCI to send to Australia a professional officer to impart leadership, authority and guidance. Ignazio Salemi arrived in Victoria on 30 September 1973. During his stay, he galvanised PCI’s members, established new contacts with left-wing associations, funded in Melbourne a newspaper, Nuovo Paese (New Country) and rekindled the sapping fortunes of Italian Communists. His deportation in 1977 by the Fraser Government, under the pretext that he was an illegal immigrant, had the unexpected effect of attracting Australian and Italian media’s attention to the presence of Italian Communists in Australia. In Sydney, some Italians who until then were reluctant to take the Party membership card, reacted to what they claimed to be unwarranted discrimination, if not altogether persecution, and joined the PCI, even before Salemi’s actual expulsion. Between 1974 and 1991 PCIs membership in Sydney totalled 162 and that of FILEF 961. These are not insignificant numbers, when Sydney’s Italian-born population in 1976 totalled 66,657, and considering the adverse political climate of the time.
As previously mentioned, by the mid-1970s relations between the CPA, the PCI and Moscow took a turn for the worse. In March 1976 the CPA Secretary, Laurence Aarons, informed the PCI Central Committee that the CPA had not been invited to attend the 25th Congress of the CPSU, while the SPA had been. He also reported that subscriptions to the Party’s newspaper Tribune had been cancelled throughout the USSR. «We believe», stated the Communist leader, «that this is another example of impermissible pressures being applied to our party by those who seek to force changes in our policies». Also the PCI took distance from the Brezhnev Doctrine, that claimed Moscow’s right to militarily intervene whenever its Eastern European satellites wavered in their commitment to Socialism. In his interview of 9 June 1976 with Milan’s daily Corriere della Sera Enrico Berlinguer provokingly stated that «it is better to be in this area [under NATO’s umbrella]. This guarantees us the kind of Socialism that we want, to be precise, Socialism in liberty, Socialism of a pluralist type». The PCI’s abjuration of »real Socialism» took place in 1981, when Berlinguer in a televised address, as reported by the PCI daily L’Unita’ on 16 December 1981, claimed that «the innovative impulse that had its origin in the October Revolution has been exhausted».
Again, in Silvio Pons’ words, «a quarter of a century after the Second World War, international Communism no longer represented a player in global politics. It increasingly looked like a divided movement, fragmented and bereft of a unitary purpose, a synonym for dogmatism and imperial conservatism, a model incapable of responding to elementary demands of freedom and progress, a power inclined to replicate ad infinitum the use of violence, and a force that had irredeemably lost its revolutionary impetus».
Despite unequivocal signs of the terminal decline of Communist ideology since 1956, the question must be asked why so many Party members, sympathisers and common people continued to blindly put their faith in a doctrine that was causing so much devastation and suffering. A Sydney PCI member justified her loyalty in the fact that «in those years the political clash was head on, to criticise Russia was like defecting to the other side». Perhaps the most cogent and painful explanation was given by Giuliano Pajetta, who in the last years of his life wrote that «what was blocking us was not fear but something different and stronger again…In any case it was not a taboo imposed by opportunism, but it was a way of denying reality when we felt that it did not correspond to what we had dreamed of for so many years and believed to have conquered with so much blood. To keep believing we needed not to see certain things».
The PCI, having ‘discovered’ Italian Communists in Australia, had to eventually acknowledge that they lacked the cohesion, intellectual stamina, «mass» scale and ability to weave a network of political alliances that could promote a PCI’s hegemonic presence in the Australian context. The Party’s «achievements» remained modest, transient and restricted to the Italian left wing milieu. Salemi admitted as much when he wrote to Pajetta that «the general lack of experience, lack of ideas and the political poverty of this place and therefore also of our group, make it possible that jealousies, exclusions, reserves and recriminations continuously surface and sometimes even blow up». Salemi’s opinion was shared by ASIO, which confirmed in 1981 that «FILEF is considered largely unsuccessful in attracting new members to the PCI from local Italian communities».
The PCI in Sydney on the whole operated through FILEF, which was mainly engaged in educational, cultural and welfare initiatives, like the successful campaign to teach Italian in the State’s primary schools, cultural retention, production of multicultural plays by emigrants, feste, social gatherings, rallies and lectures. Until 1979 the Party took a thinly disguised ‘covert’ role in order to deflect public ostracism and government sanctions for being an ‘alien’ as well as a Communist entity. Its rank-and-file members, overwhelmingly first-generation Italian, were soon embroiled in the ideological tug-of-war between supporters of the Soviet Union and the advocates of a national path to Socialism, the latter line being endorsed by the PCI as well as the CPA leadership.
Moreover, Italians were reluctant to join the CPA and the Trade Unions, considered to be too ideological, discriminatory and neglectful of the migrants’ claims to equal rights and representation in the Party’s and trade union’s structures. The drive to «assimilate», the latent and still pervasive influence of the White Australia Policy, their own version of materialism, the family, language and cultural difficulties, alienation from Anglo-Saxon industrial practices and from fellow unionists were among the factors that prompted some Italian migrants to eschew the CPA and look instead to the more familiar, grassroots policies pursued by the outpost of the Italian Communist Party in Sydney. Yet the PCI was appealing mainly to people who had experienced political indoctrination before their emigration. Salemi admitted in one of his many outbursts that «Italy and the party in Italy are realities too distant, and not only geographically, for becoming a serious unifying example for our countrymen here. Of course, the prestige of our experience and our successes is great, but not sufficient once one does take into account this reality».
The presence of the PCI in Sydney between 1971 and 1991 is but a small episode in the history of left wing activities in this city. In researching in the above-mentioned institutions and in analysing FILEF’s records and more than 60 of the personal files of Sydney’s PCI leaders and of the Party’s rank-and-file members made available by ASIO, one is confronted by the scarcity of material, correspondence, contacts and issues related to the history of Sydney’s PCI, not to mention the absolute lack of evidence of its alleged «revolutionary» menace. What in 1979 was again upgraded to the level of Federation was never able to attract, to Pajetta’s disappointment, enough support to become a «mass» movement. Most Italians were too geographically dispersed, too busy making a living, too disinterested in Italo-Australian politics, too fearful to become unwitting scapegoats of Cold War persecution to come out in the open, take the Party card and suffer the consequences. Also, despite his faith in the ‘eventual’ victory of communism, Pajetta despaired of seeing it take hold in Australia because it was «too rich a country to breed revolutionaries».
Conversely, the CPA failed to appeal to Italians. It was too busy ideologically debating on «the sex of the angels», whether to re-habilitate Bukharin and even Trotsky, to really notice the presence and the plight of immigrant workers. It still adhered to the concept of class solidarity and to the Marxist slogan «Workers of the world, unite!» provided they were all Anglo-Saxon. Its Secretary, Laurence Aarons, still believed in the ultimate coming of the «Revolution» and treated the PCI with disdain for not being revolutionary enough. «I don’t agree with Berlinguer», he declared in 1973, «The strategy of the Italian Communist Party is reformist. I used to think that there was a revolutionary core to it. Now I don’t think so».
ASIO, on its turn, for twenty years believed they were ensuring Australia’s security by their unrelenting spying on a small group of people who, perhaps eagerly, contemplated revolution and Socialism, «but not today», as capitalism and later neoliberalism were safeguarding the economic future of their children.
Despite Sydney’s PCI and FILEF shortcomings and failures, this chapter in the history of Italian migrants in Sydney, indeed of Australian history, is of interest because it was an attempt to confer dignity to their lives, to unite people coming from the different Italies, sharing vastly different histories, enthralled by an unrealistic revolutionary dream, often unwilling to speak the same political language and share like aspirations, in an environment profoundly affected by the fear of the different, of the «other».
This history, as any historical account, is necessarily a work in progress. Many documents, many sources are still unavailable. Files held by ASIO on Italian Communists remain mostly closed as, for instance, the one on the Italian Club in Victoria holding documents ranging from 1939 to 1955, because, as ASIO argued, it contains «details of individuals, organisations or intelligence services of security interest which may still be relevant today». So, as Dutch historian Pietr Geyl taught us, all historical writing is transitory. In Geyl's view, there never can be a definitive account. For Geyl, the best that historians can do is to critically examine the sources and criticise, criticise and criticise yet again, because in his opinion, history, including that of Sydney’s Italian Communists, is the progress of an «argument without end».