Today we feature one of the most controversial members in PEN’s one hundred year history, Italian Futurist and Fascist, F. T. Marinetti. Marinetti was President of the Rome PEN centre throughout the 1930s, and was a regular congress attender, going to the notorious Dubrovnik congress in 1933, as well as congresses in Edinburgh in 1934, Barcelona in 1935, and Buenos Aires in 1936. He was a vocal, argumentative, very problematic and extremely canny operator. He was the absolute master at using PEN protocols and free speech principles to wind up other members, and to get his way.
PEN, which claimed as an organisation to stand aside from politics, has always been a broad church, and this was particularly true in the 1930s when it had Communist, liberal, and Fascist members. But Marinetti was a real problem for International PEN. The majority of PEN members were socialists or liberals, and found his Fascism heinous. While behind the scenes International PEN members discussed what to do about the ‘Marinetti problem’, they were also reluctant, given their stated apoliticism, to throw him out.
And so, Marinetti would regularly take to the floor at Congresses to admonish other members to steer clear of politics and stick to the subject of literature, or to defend Italy and Fascism. One of the most controversial moments was at the 1936 Buenos Aires Congress, where he was asked by far right Argentine nationalist Carlos Ibarguren to Chair a session. This enraged a number of delegates, most notably the French writers Jules Romains and Benjamin Crémieux. Romains cited a text that Marinetti had been circulating at the Congress which promoted the values of ‘Italian pride…against every manner of friendship with foreigners’, ‘preparation for war’ and ‘martial education’. Romains insisted that, if Marinetti was to chair a PEN meeting, he must ‘disavow’ these opinions, which were opposed to PEN’s internationalism and pacifism, in ‘the most formal manner’. This produced a fracas in the Congress hall, with ‘delegates from Italy’ indulging in ‘violent demonstrations against the French delegation’. There was further ‘uproar’ in the gallery when Marinetti refused to retract and comply with the French PEN Club, ‘whose sentiments against fascism and Italy’, as he put it, are ‘well known.’
While Marinetti continued to test PEN’s stated apoliticism and tolerance of diverse views, he also represented a real threat to the organisation’s cohesion. At Buenos Aires, the Italian centre proposed that the 1937 PEN Congress be held in Rome – a proposition that was accepted by Congress. The International PEN Executive spent the next 6 months trying to get out of the commitment, succeeding in the end in hastily rearranging the 1937 to take place in Paris. Marinetti’s presence in PEN produced some of its most violent Congress moments, and anguished disagreements about the limits of its members right to express. Could the organisation promote internationalism and pacifism and also have Marinetti, and other Fascists, as members? On the other hand, could the organisation defend free speech as an ‘inalienable right’ as they called it, and then exclude those with certain views – Fascist or otherwise? These questions would continue to trouble PEN after Marinetti’s death in 1944.