‘When the press is gagged, the reader has to read between the lines’… Piero Gobetti and antifascist Italy

By Niamh Cullen

In a time of political crisis, when real power eludes us or there is huge uncertainty about what we want or how to solve our problems, words may be the best weapon we have. It is journalism and editorial comment that so often articulate the mood, and the concerns of a society, and through words – whether printed or increasingly online – that we manage to reflect meaningfully on what is going on, and even to sketch out, discuss and debate ideas and possible solutions. The value of good editorial commentary – whether in national newspapers or blogs; Fintan O’Toole or Ireland after Nama – has become increasingly clear during Ireland’s recent years of political crisis. The more immediate Egyptian crisis is another, urgent indication of courageous, independent voices, even if their medium is more likely to be twitter than print newspapers. One of the books I read over Christmas – a brilliant, slim volume by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi called Pereira Maintains and set in Salazar’s Portugal – is another powerful testimony to the editor’s unique potential, and indeed his or her responsibility, to use the printing press to spread necessary ideas and truths, even in great danger.

In the seven or so months since this blog was started, readers might have noticed the tagline in the top-right hand corner and wondered what connection its author – an early twentieth century editor and intellectual, virtually unknown outside his native Italy – might have to do with this blog.

Born in 1901, this ‘boy wonder’ of Turin began his career as journalist and editor at the precocious age of 17. He founded and edited three magazines, as well as setting up his own publishing house and writing hundreds of articles before his tragic death in 1926, at the age of 24. By the time he started his public career Italy was in a state of chaos, the end of the war in 1918 having brought not a sense of victory, but of disappointment, division, unrest and outright violence. When Mussolini began to garner support for his band of extremist, war-hungry thugs, Gobetti was among the first to recognise the deep threat to Italian democracy that fascism represented.

He wasn’t particularly interested in party politics at first but as he saw Mussolini grow more powerful, he felt a duty to add his own voice – young, principled, outraged and unafraid – to the fray. His political magazine The Liberal Revolution quickly went from being a local magazine written mostly by Gobetti himself, his fellow students and university teachers, to a nationwide platform for political opposition. Everyone from former Italian prime minister Francesco Nitti to the future Nobel prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale was published by Gobetti.

How did a twenty-something year old student at the University of Turin become one of the leading voices of opposition to Mussolini in early fascist Italy? Sheer force of will seems to have played a big part; by all accounts Gobetti had a magnetic personality and was both deeply persuasive and highly persistent. He had no powerful connections, being the only child of the owners of a grocery store in central Turin; what he achieved, he did entirely through his own intelligence and determination. He also believed utterly in what he was doing; a sense of the missionary permeates all his writings from his journalism to his letters to his fiancée. He was no saint though and could often be an infuriating person to work with. Having read through thousands of pages of his correspondence, I’ve come across plenty of irate writers, either edited far too heavily or completely ignored by Gobetti. He could be fairly sanctimonious too, and was scathing about his countrymen, whether the liberal politicians who were afraid to stand up to Mussolini or the people who, as he saw it, were stupid enough to accept a dictator as their saviour. Towards the end of his life, he was growing more bitter by the day. The political climate meant that The Liberal Revolution was continually being thwarted by the censors and newsagents were afraid to stock it for fear of intimidation. “A country has the leader it deserves”, was his scathing judgement. By then he was convinced that, in some sense, the Italians did deserve Mussolini.

His bitterness and negativity reveal a less than perfect side to Gobetti. However, despite his evident disdain for his countrymen, he continued to use his pen and his printing press to appeal to their better selves, or at least to those few who were still reading him. Even when he knew that he was defeated, he continued for as long as he could; both by repeating his outspoken invective against Mussolini and by looking for ever more inventive ways to sow the seeds of antifascism.

In 1924, The Liberal Revolution started to carry the tagline “When the press is gagged, the reader has to read between the lines”. It was around the same time that Gobetti started a new literary magazine that published essays and translations of European literature. The idea behind it was to gradually educate Italians in the diverse cultures and traditions of their European neighbours, to counter the bombastic nationalism of fascism.

The young editor’s days were numbered from the moment that Mussolini became prime minister in 1922. He was far too outspoken and chronically unable to compromise. As well as the frequent confiscation of whole print runs of the magazine by the censors, Mussolini personally addressed a telegram to the police chief of Turin telling him to “make life difficult” for the editor of The liberal revolution.

Gobetti received two savage beatings from fascist Blackshirts, but it took the police chief’s order to stop publication of the magazine altogether, for him to finally decide to leave Italy. Despite the bitter invective against the weakness and stupidity of his countrymen, Gobetti was decidedly reluctant to leave his home city when the time came, committed as he was to bringing about change from within. He left for Paris in early February 1926, intending to continue his editorial work there. Sadly, his health was already weakened from the beatings he had received and he died less than two weeks later on February 16. He was always fighting a losing battle in a divided, deeply unsettled and reactionary Italy, especially once Mussolini came on the scene.

However the fact that a university student who styled himself as an editor, and had the magazine headquarters above his parents’ grocery shop, managed to become one of the leading voices of opposition to the regime – even coming to Mussolini’s personal attention as a serious threat – is testament to the power of the printed word. In the best tradition of the crusading editor, Gobetti had a strong vision, which he consistently endeavoured to translate to the printed page, both through his own words and the collective voices of Italy’s most innovative and courageous writers and thinkers. The liberal revolution really worked as sort of laboratory of ideas for Italy’s brightest young thinkers. Hence Gobetti’s claim – adopted by The Little Review – that “we are looking not readers but for collaborators”.

Although he died in 1926, Gobetti remained a symbol of resistance to those who opposed Mussolini, whether in exile, underground or in private, for the duration of the regime. Even today, he is one of Italy’s most famous twentieth century personalities. A long way to go for the teenager who began his own magazine at the age of 17, when all he had was his pen and his opinions.

Niamh’s book ‘Piero Gobetti’s Turin: Modernity, myth and memory’ will be published in May 2011 (Peter Lang: Oxford).


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