Livio Maitan, 1923-2004: a critical assessment

Part 1: A “Trotskyist” in the Communist Party

By Peter Schwarz
4 November 2004

We are publishing here the first part of a three-part series on the political career of Livio Maitan, who died in Rome in September. We will post the second and third parts in the course of this week.

On September 16, Livio Maitan died in Rome at the age of 81. He was—next to Michel Pablo (1911-1996), Ernest Mandel (1923-1995) and Pierre Frank (1906-1984)—the best-known representative of the United Secretariat. He was a member of its leadership for 53 years and played a significant role in developing its political line.

The author of these lines is a member of the International Committee of the Fourth International, which was founded in 1953 to defend orthodox Trotskyism against the revisionist politics introduced by Pablo into the Fourth International. Since then, the International Committee has been a resolute opponent, on every important political question, of the tendency led by Pablo, Mandel and Maitan, out of which the United Secretariat developed.

The death of the last prominent leader of the United Secretariat, who personally experienced the split of 1953, provides an opportunity to draw a political balance sheet. In doing so, it is not a matter of questioning Maitan’s personal integrity or his socialist convictions. Rather, it concerns drawing important lessons from historical experiences that are essential for developing a political orientation in today’s situation.

Maitan’s life exemplifies the logical trajectory of the political conceptions that the United Secretariat defended for more than half a century. At the heart of such conceptions was the notion that the socialist reorganisation of society did not require the independent political movement of the international working class, conscious of its historical tasks, but rather could be implemented by other social and political forces, which would move to the left under the pressure of objective events.

The Pabloites held the view that “blunt instruments” not based on the working class—Stalinist parties, Maoist peasant armies, petty-bourgeois guerrillas—could move, under the pressure of objective events, in a revolutionary direction and prepare the way for socialism. The logical conclusion that flowed from such a standpoint was the liquidation of the Fourth International or—insofar as the United Secretariat formally maintained an organisation of that name—a completely new definition of its political tasks.

The Fourth International was founded in 1938 through the initiative of Leon Trotsky because only this party would ensure the continuation of Marxism and prepare the working class for future class struggles. In the 1930s, the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and the Stalinist-dominated Third International joined, once and for all, the camp of counterrevolution. In the Soviet Union itself, the defence of the bureaucracy’s privileges and the suppression of workers’ democracy became the most important barriers to economic and cultural development. Internationally, the Kremlin used the Communist Parties around the world as pawns in their diplomatic manoeuvres with the imperialist powers, a policy that led to disastrous defeats in Germany in 1933 and in Spain in 1938.

Trotsky never lost the conviction, even during the worst defeats of the working class, that the objective contradictions of the capitalist order would again lead to explosive class struggles. The founding of the Fourth International was necessary to prepare for these battles. Its membership may have been numerically small, but it embodied the lessons and experiences of decades of class struggle. Trotsky categorically ruled out a return by the social democratic and Stalinist parties to a revolutionary course. Even though they had many workers within their ranks, these parties had been transformed into tools of other social interests and forces.

Most of the prognoses and positions espoused by the United Secretariat since 1953 can today, in light of historical experiences, be subjected to conclusive evaluation. Not one of the political and social forces that they appraised as a new revolutionary vanguard and replacement for an independent movement of the working class has fulfilled any of their expectations.

Pablo predicted that, under the pressure of the masses, Stalinism would play a revolutionary role and that the road to socialism would pass through decades of deformed workers states, such as those created after the Second World War in Eastern Europe. This prognosis has been refuted by the collapse of these states and that of the Soviet Union itself. The Stalinist bureaucracy has proven to be—as Trotsky predicted—the gravedigger of the October Revolution.

Mao’s peasant armies, which the Pabloites celebrated as the archetype for the Third World and as the unconscious executors of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, have not prepared the way for a socialist future but on the contrary, a brutal form of capitalism. Mao’s heirs today supervise the exploitation of the Chinese working class by transnational corporations, imposing wages and working conditions that are worse than anywhere else in the world.

While the United Secretariat idealised the national liberation movements and their prescription of “armed struggle,” none of them have achieved any real degree of independence from imperialism. All of them have confirmed Trotsky’s prognosis, in the negative, that in countries with a belated capitalist development, “the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.” (1)

The political conceptions of the United Secretariat were not only mistaken, they played a huge role around the world in disorienting youth and workers, who were looking for an alternative to capitalism during the massive social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

As the United Secretariat’s hopes, based on Stalinism and the petty-bourgeois nationalists, were finally proven to be illusory, the organisation swung further to the right and retreated into the sphere of the capitalist state. It is significant that Maitan spent the last 13 years of his political life within the ranks of a party that served to prop up the centre-left governments of Romano Prodi and Massimo D’Alema. From 1991 to 2001 he sat in the executive of Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), one of the successor organisations to the Italian Communist Party.

In his last international appearance, at the 15th World Congress of the United Secretariat in February 2003, he congratulated a Brazilian member of the United Secretariat, who serves as a minister in the bourgeois government of President Inácio “Lula” da Silva.

Maitan joins the Fourth International

Livio Maitan was born in 1923 in Venice, a half year after Mussolini took power. He grew up in fascist Italy and completed a degree in classical literature at the University of Padova. In the last years of the war, he joined the socialist resistance against the Nazi occupation and was eventually forced to flee to Switzerland, where he experienced the end of the war in an internment camp. He later became an organiser of the socialist youth movement. In 1947, during a socialist congress in Paris, he met Ernest Mandel and joined the Fourth International.

This was the period in which Trotsky’s conceptions began to be called into question by sections of the Fourth International’s leadership. By the time Maitan entered the leading body of the Fourth International in 1951, Pablo, its secretary at the time, had thoroughly formulated his revisionist standpoint, which two years later led to a split within the Trotskyist movement. It was in this year that Pablo’s document “Where Are We Going?” was published. In it, Pablo stated that social reality “consists essentially of the capitalist regime and the Stalinist world” and that “the overwhelming majority of the forces opposing capitalism right now are to be found under the leadership or influence of the Soviet bureaucracy.” (2)

This conception, formulated as the Cold War was just starting, ignored the working class and replaced the class struggle raging in both camps with the conflict between the Soviet Union and US imperialism. Pablo believed that the socialist revolution would begin in the form of a war between the Soviet Union and the United States, in which the Soviet bureaucracy would play a leading role at the head of “the forces opposing capitalism.” Under these conditions, nothing remained for the Fourth International to do except to enter the Stalinist parties—“the integration into the real mass movement,” as Pablo put it.

In 1953, the Socialist Workers Party in the United States published its “Open Letter,” rejecting the positions of Pablo and calling for the founding of the International Committee, which the British and the majority of the French section, among others, joined.

During this conflict, Maitan stood on the side of Pablo, Mandel and Frank, the leader of the French minority, and remained an active member of the United Secretariat throughout the rest of his life. He published numerous books—about Antonio Gramsci, Leon Trotsky, the Italian Communist Party, the Chinese Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the end of the Soviet Union—of which only a few were translated into other languages. He also wrote regularly for the publications of the United Secretariat and made a name for himself as the translator of Trotsky’s works into Italian.

In Italy, Maitan was the public face of the Italian section of the United Secretariat for half a century.

Maitan and the Italian Communist Party

The adaptation of the Pabloites to Stalinism had particularly far-reaching consequences in Italy. In no other advanced industrial country, apart from France, did the Stalinist Communist Party achieve such extensive influence as in Italy.

This was bound up with its peculiar history. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) spent a large part of its existence in illegality and in struggle against the Mussolini regime. Well-known leaders such as Antonio Gramsci fell victim to fascism. In the Resistenza, the resistance movement, which developed against the German occupation and the leftovers of Mussolini’s state after the invasion of the Allies, the PCI was the leading force. This helped it develop strong roots within the population. It was the dominant force above all in many regions in northern Italy and in Toscana, where numerous families lost members in the struggle carried out by the Resistenza. The party leadership, however, under Palmiro Togliatti consisted of loyal servants to Moscow. Many leaders survived fascism in exile in the Soviet Union and were deeply implicated in the worst of Stalin’s crimes.

In conformity with Stalin’s line, the PCI unconditionally defended bourgeois rule after the fall of Mussolini. In the spring of 1944, only a few months after the fall of the dictator and Italy’s official surrender, the PCI joined the government of Marshal Pietro Badoglio and thereby prevented a radical break with the fascist past and a revolutionary reorganisation of political life. Thanks to the PCI, the political and social elite, which for 20 years had based its rule on Mussolini’s dictatorship, was able to survive his fall undamaged.

The PCI belonged to all the national coalition governments that changed quickly up until May 1947. The start of the Cold War, however, prevented further participation in government. Washington was not prepared to accept a communist minister who had direct links to Moscow in a pillar of NATO. It was to be another 50 years until the PCI—then transformed into the Left Democrats (DS)—was to take over a ministerial post in Rome.

Nevertheless, during these 50 years, the PCI remained a decisive prop of the bourgeois order in Italy. Indeed, one can say without exaggeration that the PCI was its backbone. It was the only political party in the country that had a mass base of support and a widely rooted, central organisational structure. The Christian Democrats, the permanent party of government, consisted of several quarrelling cliques, and its electoral results were largely due to the influence of the Catholic Church. The smaller parties—the Socialists, Social Democrats, radicals and liberals—were not much more than representatives of various lobbying groups.

The PCI played a political role in Italy similar to that of the SPD (Social Democratic Party) in Germany and the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. In the period of the post-war boom, it mediated the conflict between the classes. Italy, predominantly agrarian and poor—with the exception of the industrial belt in the north—went through a process of rapid industrialisation resulting in a significant rise in living standards. For the first time, families could afford a television, a car, a holiday, and much more, which had not previously been possible. During this period, the proportion of votes for the PCI rose constantly, from around 20 percent in the first post-war election to 34 percent in the mid-1970s, at the peak of the economic boom. Thereafter, with mounting social problems, it lost votes from election to election.

A revolutionary, socialist strategy during the post-war period would have concentrated on preparing the working class for the inevitable break from the PCI. Propaganda and tactical initiatives would have worked to expose the PCI—i.e., to make the working class conscious of the irreconcilable contradiction between its long-term interests and the politics of the PCI and to develop a politically conscious cadre on this basis. The starting point for such a strategy would have been an understanding of the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism.

Maitan stood for a completely different perspective. He viewed the PCI not as a prop for the capitalist order, but rather as an instrument through which a revolutionary movement of the working class would develop. In a 200-page book about the theory and politics of the PCI, first published in 1959 and reissued in 1969, he wrote:

“The PCI is the political-organisational form in which the post-war movement of workers and peasant masses in post-war Italy is manifested. In other words, it is within this organisation and through its mediation that the decisive social forces, which are fighting for a radical reorganisation of the structure of present society, express themselves. Insofar as the PCI wants to continue and retain the mass influence that it enjoys, the leadership must—albeit in a deformed form—articulate the reality of the class struggle in which it is immersed.”

This, according to Maitan, was “the important social factor that explains the reality of the Communist Party; it explains why the tens of thousands of proletarian cadre remain loyal to it, even when they have long lost illusions in the wisdom and infallibility of the leadership.” (3)

Here, reality is turned on its head. Though the PCI was the decisive barrier to an offensive of the working class after the war and could only maintain its influence over the workers’ movement due to the social concessions of the post-war period, Maitan claims that workers were loyal to the PCI because it embodied their revolutionary ambitions, because it articulated “the reality of the class struggle”.

Of course, Maitan could not completely ignore the support given to the bourgeois state by the PCI and the bureaucratic character of its leadership. So he claimed that the party had a two-sided character: “The contradiction of the PCI is based on the fact that it is no longer a revolutionary party and explicitly rejects the perspective of the revolutionary conquest of power, but that due to its origin and its nature it cannot be, nor become, a truly reformist party.” (4)

Maitain justified the supposed impossibility of the transformation of the PCI into a “truly reformist party” by arguing that its “neo-bureaucratic revisionism does not express the social influence of the bourgeoisie or imperialism in the workers movement, but rather the influence of the bureaucratic caste in the USSR, this conservative but still anti-capitalist force.” (5) This conception was in direct opposition to that of Trotsky. Trotsky insisted that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a “tool of the world bourgeoisie in the workers movement” (6) and as such played, in the Soviet Union and in the international arena, not an anti-capitalist but a counterrevolutionary role.

The political conclusions flowing from Maitan’s conception of the PCI run like a thread through the entire work of the Italian Pabloites.

As early as 1951, members of Maitan’s organisation, the Gruppi Comunisti Rivoluzionari (GCR), followed Pablo’s recommendations and joined the PCI. Although a small organisational nucleus and the Bandiera Rossa newspaper were still maintained, the great majority of the members worked up until 1969 within the ranks of the Stalinists. And in the PCI they could not work openly. “We lived in the PCI like hermits because we didn’t express our difference of opinions. We waited, until the situation matured,” a member at the time told a historian. (7)

The fact that a large part of the Italian working class was influenced by the PCI meant that work inside it could not be rejected out of hand. It was under similar circumstances that the British Trotskyists under Gerry Healy successfully worked within the Labour Party between 1947 and 1959. However, the entryism practised by the British Trotskyists was guided by a completely different perspective than that of the GCR under Livio Maitan. The former held absolutely no doubts about the counterrevolutionary character of the Labour Party. Their work was accordingly oriented toward preparing the working class for the inevitable break from this party. They fought a bitter struggle against the party bureaucracy and on this basis were able to develop a Marxist cadre—with success. In 1963, the Labour Party’s youth movement, the Young Socialists, joined the British Trotskyist movement, the Socialist Labour League.

Maitan’s Pabloist perspective led to completely different results. If the PCI was “the political-organisational form” in which “the movement of the worker and peasant masses is manifested,” and if it was forced “to articulate the reality of the class struggle” so that it would not lose their influence, then the task of the Trotskyists was not to break workers from the PCI but to work loyally within its ranks. Such a perspective made the GCR nothing more than a left cover for Stalinism. Although they criticised the party leadership on different issues, in essence they supported it and promoted the illusion that it would develop in a revolutionary direction.

At the same time, this orientation cut the Italian working class off from the perspective of the Fourth International. In Italy, where there has never existed a section of the International Committee, the fact that Livio Maitan, the most well-known Trotskyist, supported the PCI turned away workers and youth who were in sharp conflict with the PCI during the 1960s and 1970s. The radicalisation during these years did not benefit the Fourth International, but ran into the channels of Maoism and anarchism or finished in the dead end of “armed struggle” and terrorism. The latter, at the end of the 1970s, assumed considerable proportions and precipitated a deep crisis within the Italian left.

Maitan contributed to this development in two ways. First, he persevered with the idea of remaining loyal to the PCI—even in 1968, as the majority of his own organisation held a different position, resulting in a split in the GCR. On the other hand, as a leading representative of the United Secretariat, Maitan fostered illusions in Maoism and the “armed struggle,” which were instrumental in disorienting the militant movement of those years.

To be continued

1) Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, New Park, p.152
2) Cited from David North, The Heritage We Defend, Labor Publications, Detroit, 1988, p.185. This book contains an extensive exposition of the split of 1953 and the disputes between the United Secretariat and the International Committee.
3) Livio Maitan, PCI 1945-1969: stalinismo e opportunismo, Rome 1969, p.195.
4) Ibid. p.201.
5) Ibid. p.199. (Emphasis added.)
6) Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program, Labor Publications, New York, 1981, p.
7) Interview with F.Villani in: Yurii Colombo, Il movimento trotskista in Italia durante la stagione dei movimenti sociali,

Contribute to the fight for socialism in 2020

2019 has been a year of mass social upheaval. We need you to help the WSWS and ICFI make 2020 the year of international socialist revival. We must expand our work and our influence in the international working class. If you agree, donate today. Thank you.