They buried a working class hero in Milan, Italy, last week. When Giovanni Pesce’s coffin was brought out, a thousand people had been waiting hours to greet it.
They saluted this 89 year old with red flags, trade union banners, clenched fists, and choruses of “The Internationale”.
Inside that old body carried out into the sunlight was shrapnel from the wounds he received on the Saragozza front in Spain in 1936.
Among the many incredible things he did in his life, Pesce signed up to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War when he was 18.
The Milan crowd sang the Italian partisan song, “Bella Ciao”. This song encapsulates Pesce’s life. He was one of only five people to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Resistance, the working class movement that overthrew fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1945.
He got the medal because he was brilliant at killing Nazis and fascists. He never boasted about it, saying when questioned, “I just did my duty.”
In 1943 Pesce got involved in the new movement against fascism, which had ruled Italy with an iron hand for 20 years. Partisan groups came together in the mountains and conducted guerrilla warfare from bases.
Pesce though was based in the cities of Turin and Milan, the centre of economic and political life.
The Germans had occupied northern Italy in 1943. Anti-fascists couldn’t operate openly here. As he explained, “You need to understand that the vast majority of Italians were passive, they were frightened.
“But deep down they hated the Germans. So the important thing was that every time there was an attack, it gave people hope and confidence.”
He had joined the Communist Party (CP) several years earlier, and despite the party’s illusions in Stalinist Russia, it saw factory workers as the key to turning the tide in the cities. Italian fascists and bosses saw this too, and would frequently turn activists over to the Nazi SS.
This was where people like Pesce could make a difference: “The really important thing wasn’t killing a spy, but the repercussions this had on public opinion.
“At the Caproni factory in Milan, the boss, Cesarini, had got more than 150 workers deported to Germany, where about 70 died in concentration camps.
“These workers were really frightened, they never went on strike, they did nothing.”
The resistance ordered Pesce to act, “So on my own at 7.40 in the morning I went up and killed him and two other managers. At the same time, all the workers who were getting off the tram for the shift change and who had seen what happened started shouting, ‘Well done!’
“The very same day, the entire factory went on strike. And that factory was ‘strike happy’ until Liberation Day. The important thing wasn’t the killing, but the effect it had.”
After Liberation Pesce continued to be active. He was a communist councillor in Milan from 1951 to 1964.
But as the party became increasingly right wing, he started to wonder whether the ideals he had fought for in 1945 were coming closer: “There was a huge hope for a better world – work for everybody, an end to hunger. The conditions could have been created for us and our children to live in peace. But this didn’t really happen.”
He began writing books about his experiences. His book And No Quarter! became basic reading for student and worker activists in the great upsurge that began in 1968.
Sometimes he would speak at meetings of the revolutionary left in the 1970s, warning them not to mechanically superimpose the conditions of a fascist dictatorship onto present day society. He argued that in democracies terrorism only helps the forces of reaction.
But he would admit, “In many ways it’s more difficult today – it’s hard to identify who the enemy is because they all seem so respectable.”
When the CP dissolved in 1991 Pesce immediately joined Rifondazione Comunista.
Such was Pesce’s impact that the mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti, felt obliged to attend his funeral.
Moratti is a major leader of the right wing Forza Italia party. She even moved enough to say “through his actions Pesce showed that freedom is something precious that is not given, it is something that is fought for day by day”.
Forcing your enemy to say that about you? That’s not a bad way to go!
Tom Behan interviewed Giovanni Pesce for Socialist Worker in 2004. Go to » Liberation from below