The grounds of my hope are very complex because I'm a Christian and a whole lot of other things. Or at least I subscribe to that discourse in which God is a significant signifying term. I also subscribe to Gramsci's optimism of the will. Yet as long as you are part of the struggle, pure hope becomes abstract because the actual historical process produces tremendous setbacks and certain small gains.-Cornell West1
After a little while he continued, "I too, in the dregs of my afflictions, have asked myself: Where is God and why has he abandoned us? Certainly the loudspeakers and bells announcing the new slaughter were not God. Nor were the cannon shots and the bombing of the Ethiopian villages of which we read every day [End Page 103] in the newspapers. But if one poor man gets up in the middle of the night and writes on the walls of the village with a piece of charcoal or varnish, 'Down with the War,' the presence of God is undoubtedly behind that man. How can one not recognize the divine light in his scorn of danger and in his love for the so-called enemies?"-Ignazio Silone2
The Anguish Expressed by Ignazio Silone in Bread and Wine grows out of what Ernst Bloch called "the darkness of the lived moment" of fascism (12) as well as Silone's bitter disillusionment with the social agency that sought to destroy fascism, the Italian Communist Party.3 Yet, along with the darkness and disillusion, his novel also grasps the slim hope that humanity could still find effective ways to oppose domination and fight for justice and freedom. This anticipatory vision, however, has generally been effaced by readings of the novel that stress the pessimism of the situation rather than the optimism of the characters' activities. At least since the author's turn to a one-dimensional anticommunism in the 1950s-expressed in his contribution to The God That Failed and in a revision of Bread and Wine that sought to remove its painful specificity and to assert a transhistorical individual integrity in a hopeless world-his 1936 novel has usually been appropriated by commentators, religious and secular, who see in it the confirmation of their own rejection of revolutionary praxis and their reformist accommodation with postwar capitalist life. A careful rereading of even the revised edition of Bread and Wine, however, reveals that this account of repression and resistance is not yet the document of compensation that Silone and others tried to make of it in the 1950s.
On the contrary, Silone's novel is a meditation on human commitment that rejects a religion and a politics based on abstract master discourses. Indeed, it is a narrative that approaches the synthesis of historical materialism and religious thought developed by liberation theologians who have been working among the poor and the exploited of Latin America since the 1960s. That these themes are addressed more by oblique statements of existential doubt and revealing silences should not surprise us, for Silone was still working out of, and against, the hegemonic orthodoxies of Roman Catholicism and Comintern communism during a time that prevented the conceptual breakthroughs achieved by a worldly Catholicism and a critical Marxism in the decades after the Second World War. And yet an early version of that vision of historical openness and revolutionary commitment within the religious public sphere [End Page 104] can be found in Bread and Wine. Indeed, the pain and uncertainty through which the new problematic of religious and political counter-hegemonic action is presented in Silone's classic novel perhaps provides a better starting place for an examination of the praxis of liberation theology than that theory's own more confident and militant documents.4
The radical hope that suffuses Silone's novel not only rises out of the author's involvement in the antifascist struggle-even after his expulsion from me Italian Communist Party in 1931-but also rises out of his willingness to learn from the peasantry of the Abruzzi, the mountainous region of central Italy that was his home. In his political work and in his writing...