Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone tells the story of Pietro Spina, a formerly exiled Italian revolutionary attempting to recruit and organize the peasants of his native region of Abruzzi into an effective anti-fascist resistance movement. The novel’s most interesting passages usually take place in the form of discussions between the protagonist and various acquaintances from his conspiratorial past
In one of my favorite passages, Pietro meets with Annina, the former girlfriend of a comrade-turned informant. “Conspiratorial life is hard,” Pietro tells her, “we have to be pitiless” (179). When she tells him that she renounced revolutionary struggle long ago, an indignant Pietro asks her, “how can you resign yourself to ordinary life?” (179).
Contemporary critics would likely read these passages as another pebble added to the mountain of proof regarding revolutionary folly in the twentieth century. Today, public intellectuals call less for revolution or radicalism than for measured demands, for adherence to the requirements of “reality” (a condition more often described by others than experienced first-hand), while reminding anxiety-riddled readers of the blood-soaked “revolutionary” regimes of the past century.
To understand the bridge between true revolutionary thought an action, one must also understand the cold-bloodedness that allows militants like Pietro to look upon such nonsensical abstractions “ordinary life” with disdain. First, one must ask what constitutes an ordinary life. Who can aspire to such a dull goal and actually achieve it? Even if one could realize such an uninspiring aim, could he or she truly gain satisfaction from it? “Ordinary” denotes something commonplace, without distinctive features, something well ensconced within the spirit of its time, thus contrived, conformist, and without great merit. Worse, one can always expect the search for an “ordinary life” or an “ordinary person” to end in disappointment, for each existence depends less on individual actions than on external factors, rendering this quest equally onerous and unimaginative. Hence, the rejection of the moderate or conservative’s celebration of the “ordinary life” has nothing to do with romanticism, but instead suggests devotion to a liberating realism, refusing the constraints placed on existence by comfortable illusions.
Still, let us imagine that one could in fact live an “ordinary life”, and that such a life included all that a reasonable individual might enjoy or desire. Could a militant belonging to a radical cause justifiably look upon it with disdain? I contend that he can only do so. In fact, the proper revolutionary should hate what intellectuals vaguely refer to as “humanity”, that mass of slightly above-average mammals that would stop inflicting indignities on one another if only they did not possess such an inflexible “nature”.
A true revolutionary cannot accept arguments that blur the future and forget the advances of the past in order to privilege a present convenient for some and unpleasant for most. He or she respects individuals and their achievements; they act not in accordance with laws but in agreement with the dictates of their own conscience. One can only describe such an attitude as “pitiless”. It gives no quarter to clichés like the “common people” or to their legions of self-appointed representatives. A revolutionary like Pietro only understands and responds to empirical evidence of wrongs committed by those in power, and prefers judgments based in philosophical inquiry over easily manipulated representations of popular opinion. Most importantly, the revolutionary life allows no divergence from the individual’s basic moral principals, contrary to what a party leader or fellow militant might claim. As Pietro argues throughout the novel, each revolution belongs to the individual as much as it seeks to improve conditions for the collective. Only in this way can he retain his instinctual socialism, a deeply anti-authoritarian impulse that allows him to maintain empathy for individuals without losing sight of his cause.