Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Tom Behan - Revolutionary Historian

Though I did not really know Tom Behan, (and indeed one of my main memories of him was a meeting I think he one year at Marxism on 'A Marxist analysis of the Mafia' - which in about an hour certainly wiped away my sentimental sense of the 'rustic chivalry' and glamour about such organisations that I had imbibed from countless hours watching The Godfather trilogy and other mafia films - along with not living in a country where such organisations operated), it was still a tremendous shock to read the following email from the SWP about 'Tom Behan (1957-2010)':

'It is with great sadness that I have to inform comrades that Tom Behan died on Monday. Tom was a member of the party for over 30 years. He played an invaluable role in the protests in Genoa and he was responsible for bringing over Carlo Guiliani’s mother to speak at numerous political events in Britain. His writings on Italy – especially on Mussolini, the Resistance Movement and the Mafia are just wonderful and should be read by everyone. He will be greatly missed. An obituary for Tom will be in next week’s Socialist Worker.'

By way of the smallest possible tribute, I will transcribe a small section from the introduction of one of his last books about The Italian Resistance to fascism during the Second World War - which reminds us that democracy and liberation from tyranny and dictorships does not come from on high, via B-52 bombers, but from below, from mass movements and the mass collective action of millions of people. This is Tom Behan on 'The Meaning of the Resistance']:

In essence the Resistance is about democracy, direct democracy. And perhaps the most subversive idea of the entire movement was that you can defeat a far more powerful enemy - in this case by successfully conducting a campaign of guerrilla warfare. When the Italian government signed an armistice and collapsed in September 1943, the Nazis brought large numbers over the Alps in a great rush to occupy the country, and to block the Allies, who were already in the South. The idea that the most ruthless and efficient fighting machine in the world could be brought to a standstill seemed like a joke back then - yet less than two years later German Field Marshals were forced to surrender to ordinary communist industrial workers.

The story of the Italian Resistance movement is the story of how ordinary people (a people who are often racially stereotyped as being cowardly), who had lived under a dictatorship for 20 years, played a key role in ending a system which seemed set in stone, totally unbeatable. It is the story of how a society which seemed extremely stable and controlled, destined to continue in the same way forever, suddenly exploded from below with mass activity, such that for a brief period everything seemed possible.

How could such an organisation grow so quickly? First of all, the situation was so dire that many people felt they had nothing else left to lose. A historian hostile to the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789 [Thomas Carlyle] once captured the common causes of so many huge social upheavals, which were also applicable to Italy during the Second World War: 'Hunger and nakedness, and nightmare oppression lying heavy on twenty-five million hearts; this, not the wounded vanities or contradicted philosophies of philosophical advocates, rich shopkeepers, rural noblesse, was the prime mover in the French Revolution; as the like will be in all such revolutions, in all countries.'

By 1942 many Italian cities were being bombed nightly by the Allies, jobs were becoming scarce, as was food. A young worker in Milan recalled: 'Parents' body weight fell to 40-50 kilos, so they could give what little they had to their children. You reached the point that out of dying of hunger or dying from a bullet - it was better to die from a bullet.' Similarly, many families had loved ones fighting in Mussolini's armies who had either been killed, wounded or captured. For many conscript soldiers and their families, the idea of fighting alongside the invading Nazis, or dying for Mussolini's puppet regime created in September 1943 by the Germans, was simply never taken seriously.

People behaved in unusual ways: who would expect a Vice Chancellor in a speech to first-year university students to invite them to take up arms against the government? Well, it happened at Padua university in 1943.

The Resistance is important not just because it was a military movement which involved much of society, but because it was also a political movement, a movement for democracy against fascist dictatorship. Very few of the participants ever visualised their future in terms of the kind of stale parliamentary systems we know today; most were fighting for much more radical and participatory forms of democracy. Be that as it may, one simply cannot understand modern Italian society and politics without understanding the Resistance. Modern Italian democracy comes directly from the Resistance, it comes from below.

This is why it is has been so popular for many Italians - it was a war fought by volunteers. All Resistance fighters made their own personal decision that it was right to risk their own lives for a cause - a very different decision from that of someone joining an army because they receive their call-up papers through the letter box.
Tom Behan 'The Meaning of the [Italian] Resistance'

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