Francesco Ghezzi according to Jacques Mesnil

Francesco Ghezzi according to Jacques Mesnil

[…] Ghezzi fled to Russia.

On the Verge of the NEP

For a description of this period in our friend’s life, the Committee has seen fit to turn to Jacques Mesnil who was staying in Moscow at the time; I made Ghezzi’s acquaintance at the end of June 1921, in Moscow, where he had arrived with another two comrades to take part in the Red International of Trade Unions Congress. At that congress he was one of the representatives from the Italian Syndicalist Union, an organization with revolutionary-syndicalist and anarchist leanings which had split off, before the war, from the General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) led by reformist leaders hostile to any direct action and some of whom finished up playing along with the fascist regime. He arrived rather early to take part in the proceedings of the 3rd Congress of the Communist International which preceded that of the RILU and so he had time to get his bearings.

Ghezzi was then in the full bloom of youth and as one Italian communist later wrote “so attractive was his candour, alert, lively intelligence and inner light that all who met him will never forget that twenty year old proletarian.” In actual fact, he was already 27 years of age and all the youthfulness that he had retained, despite a fraught existence, made him immediately attractive and made one make a bee-line for him in all confidence, but did not preclude a certain maturity of mind moulded through contact with harsh experience. Whilst he arrived in Russia filled with all the enthusiasm that the Russian Revolution had inspired in him, having at some remove followed its inception and progress, he was also there with eyes wide open, determined to see everything and understand everything, as a conscious proletarian whose mind was made up to take an active hand in the elaborative effort that would mould the future rather than, as in the case of so many of the “delegates”, to court the established regime. He did not make do with the official literature handed out in abundance at the congress as his only source of information; he wanted to take counsel from comrades of every persuasion and did his best to ensure direct contact with the populace, in which the ease with which he picked up languages was a great help to him; he took part in the “Communist Saturdays”, the afternoons on which militants of every nationality voluntarily offered their labour to the community, free of charge.

Let me state as briefly as I can what Ghezzi was able to observe at that point, the better to understand how his mind thereafter grappled with problems of the revolution.

We were at a turning-point in the Revolution: the “New Economic Policy” (NEP), the policy of concessions to capitalism and private business and of a partial reversion to the economics of the old regime, had just been ordered by the leaders of the Russian CP who had hitherto gambled on the revolution’s spreading to other countries and who had as a result made a series of mistakes, one of the gravest of which was alienating the peasant population by means of requisitions with attendant violence, which, to those concerned, looked all the more despicable in that they could often see the foodstuffs just wrested from them on the pretext of feeding the urban population left to rot in railway stations due to the inadequate means of transport.

The upshot of these mistakes was the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors in March 1921, which the Bolsheviks represented as a revolt by “Whites”, whilst knowing that the “Whites” had no hand in it and which they then drowned in blood. Inside the CP and related quarters in France, care was taken to cover up the truth about the Kronstadt revolt. But in the summer of 1921, in Moscow, it was not hard to find out if one took the trouble to inquire. Among the purest and more serious communists, the incident had left a deep impression, the impression of a grave error’s having been made and there was a degree of disaffection from the party’s leaders as the feeling was that a crime could have been averted.

At the Communist International’s Congress, Ghezzi was present as an observer and the core issue was “The Left”. Beware of the Left was the watchword handed down from above. The dictators had smashed the Right; as far as they were concerned, the point now was to hold on to power by making concessions to non-communist elements, capitalists, peasants, petits bourgeois. The Left were the die-hards who wanted to stick by the principles of communism, the comrades whose tactics lacked suppleness, and it was primarily they who wanted to deliver to the workers the major role in the government of the Soviet Republic, now wholly in the hands of the CP’s high command.

Within the Russian CP, the “Left” was the “Workers’ Opposition” of Kollontai, Shliapnikov, etc. At the Congress of the Russian CP, which, as ever, had come prior to the congress of the International, it had prepared and determined (great care was taken to conceal from the foreign delegates the extent to which the International was merely a front meant for the wider public, and for which everything had been arranged in advance and behind the scenes by the RCP) that the Workers’ Opposition should  be crushed. Kollontai’s report, entitled The Workers’ Opposition, a crucial document in the history of the Russian Revolution and its deviations, a report that she had published had been immediately impounded by order of the party leadership.

Kollontai tried to have her arguments aired at the Congress of the International. Trotsky was appointed to respond to her. Trotsky’s speech can still be found in the records of the Congress: it was a parliamentary speech in the direst sense of the word, one of those speeches that seeks, not to counter the opponent’s arguments with arguments of one’s own, but to hold his speech up to ridicule by misrepresenting it and ridiculing the adversary herself. There was even some cheap macho sarcasm targeting the woman who wanted to play her part, and pose “like an amazon” (“like a Valkyrie”, the chairman Radek added). It was so vile that among the French communist delegation that year, not one applauded Trotsky.

It was all the viler in that Trotsky himself was convinced that Kollontai was correct on certain key issues, notably the unsettling growth of the bureaucracy within the party. This came to light years later when he himself became an oppositionist: certain of Kollontai’s criticisms flowed from his own pen then and the formulation of them was almost identical.

On other points too the Workers’ Opposition was fully correct: it took exception to the way in which the party machine was foisting its wishes on the soviets and labour unions; Shliapnikov himself told me back then that the CP was forcing the unions to appoint the candidates it pleased, even when the union had picked other candidates with a huge majority.

Ghezzi was aware of all this and lots of other things besides and they showed him that the CP was essentially out to lord it absolutely over the workers’ movement. The RILU Congress completed his insight.
The Bolsheviks hid their real intentions from the delegates from foreign labour unions: they tried to lure the anarcho-syndicalists over to the ranks of the Red International of Labour Unions: they flattered them and acclaimed them as outstanding revolutionaries. But the latter were hopping mad when they found out that in Russia militants of the same mind as themselves were in prison. The Bolsheviks then tried to show them that the folks in prison in Russia were not at all anarchists and syndicalists but rather brigands or associates of the “bandit” Makhno, counter-revolutionaries backed by “wealthy peasants” and that they had taken up arms to defeat the Revolution.

I have before me Yakovlev’s pamphlet The Russian ‘Anarcho-syndicalists’ In front of The Court of the World Proletariat, published to that end and with which Ghezzi too was familiar: It is a monumental hypocrisy and in bad faith, a jumble of everything, a blend of true facts and falsehoods, arbitrary interpretations, sophistry, crude abuse, a sample of the sort of literature that the CP has simply multiplied in its polemics and which eventually destroyed any credibility it once had in the world of labour.

A mind as broad and fair as Ghezzi’s would immediately have recognized the mistakes made by anarchists, had the facts been put to him straight; but on reading the pamphlet which stated, right from the outset, that “during the events of October 1917, the Russian anarchists, swept along by the spontaneous revolt of the labouring masses, were nowhere to be seen”, when in Moscow, there were eye-witnesses galore to state they had instead played a role of the first significance in the taking of the Kremlin, Ghezzi could only have felt disgust.
As for Makhno, whose very name drove the Bolsheviks into fits of rage (as I witnessed myself on more than one occasion) Ghezzi also strove to discern the truth there too, which was none too easy. Makhno was neither a counter-revolutionary (he had been allied with the Bolsheviks against Denikin!) not a “bandit”, nor the leader of “well-to-do peasants”, but the leader of Ukraine’s poor peasants. He was a Ukrainian with the independence of mind of folk from there and their age-old dislike of centralization. In their fighting he used the old partisan methods of warfare. Trotsky who was lobbying for the formation of a regular, solidly disciplined army and who was opposed to such fighting methods, which he contended were obsolete, tried to dispose of him by resorting to means that were, all in all, reminiscent of the ones used by Cesare Borgia at the end of the 15th century to dispatch some petty tyrants in the Romagna. By destroying such vestiges of feudalism, Cesare Borgia was in tune with the trend of the age and Trotsky’s conduct could be excusable on the same grounds. But at the very least he needed to spell out the actuality of the situation to a conscious, enlightened proletarian like Ghezzi, to a “comrade” he wanted to win over to the RILU, rather than crassly lying to him.

The RILU Congress finished the job of alerting him to the danger of the CP’s stranglehold on the workers’ organizations. In spite of everything that was done to sugar the pill, that danger was visible, even at a distance (Monatte was not taken in at the time, despite his personal liking for the men from the RCP), but, close up, there was no room left for doubt: an incident such as Bukharin’s brusque intervention when he was sent to the Congress by the RCP Central Committee when it was not his place to be there and his being surrounded by soldiers from the Red Army at the time – in order to rehash, in a different form, the lies peddled in the Yakovlev pamphlet, lies that the chairman, Lozovsky, tried to shove down the throats of those attending the Congress without affording them any right of reply, – that incident, as I say, was of itself plainly meaningful. None of these experiences diminished Ghezzi’s enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution, but they taught him to distinguish between the live handiwork of the Revolution and what was merely the effect of power being vested in one party and to recognize the difficulties the revolutionaries were grappling with and to familiarize himself with their mistakes. In the great revolution pulled off thanks to the collaboration of Bolsheviks, anarchists and Left Social Revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks had been hoisted into power and had managed to eliminate their partners in order to rule alone; they had conjured enemies for themselves on their left among the most active, most genuine revolutionaries as well as in the ranks of the proletariat. They had embarked upon the process whereby every established authority degenerates. What is now happening to Ghezzi certainly comes as no surprise; it is only the consequence of that process which he had witnessed beginning in 1921.

But the wrongs committed by the Bolshevik Party against the Revolution did not prevent Ghezzi from acknowledging the value of its personnel; the first time he heard Lenin speak, he was enthused by how straightforward and blunt he had been in the way he set matters out. “That’s the way to speak!” he cried out, sensible of the impact of that great experience, that great disinterested power. But on other occasions he lamented the ice in the soul that could be detected among the Bolsheviks and harked back to the more ardent and warmer ethos that a driver such as Malatesta would have brought to the Revolution.

Jacques MESNIL

Au Secours de Francesco GHEZZI, un prisonnier du Guépéou (Brussels, 1930), pp. 12-17

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.