Marking 50 years
Founded by expelled PCI members, Il Manifesto has successfully outlived its rivals. Toby Abse praises the consistent anti-capitalism and pans the Maoist absurdities
April 28 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the first publication of the daily newspaper Il Manifesto, whose name was intended as a conscious reference to the Communist manifesto of 1848, and which for most of its existence has proudly displayed the subtitle, ‘Quotidiano comunista’ (‘Communist daily’) on its front page.1
Il Manifesto’s survival for half a century is an amazing achievement in itself, given that it has never relied on external funding from either a foreign government2 or trade union bureaucrats, in the manner of the Communist Party of Britain’s Morning Star, which surpasses Il Manifesto in its longevity. It is also worth noting that Il Manifesto is run as a workers’ cooperative in order to preserve its independence, even if its precarious finances have often meant that its journalists were either unpaid or received their wages in arrears.3 Whilst some might argue that Il Manifesto’s subtitle is no longer strictly accurate, there is no doubt that it is by far the most leftwing of the Italian dailies - persistently criticising capitalism’s very essence, not just its more unpleasant neoliberal manifestations.4 Moreover, Manifesto has outlived L’Unità - the daily founded by Antonio Gramsci and originally associated with the ‘official’ Italian Communist Party (PCI) - by some years: something nobody would have predicted 50 years ago.
In its early years, Il Manifesto faced competition from other far-left dailies, principally Lotta Continua, the paper of the revolutionary organisation of the same name, which survived that organ’s dissolution in 1976, but closed early in the 1980s - by which time it was drifting away from any real commitment to either working class militancy or any variant of communism. More recently, there was a period when the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party - PRC) produced a daily edition of Liberazione. But soon after the PRC lost its parliamentary representation in 2008 the print version of that paper was wound up, and it did not survive very long in an online format. As far as I am aware, Il Manifesto is the only daily in continental Europe founded in the aftermath of 1968 which has survived in something resembling its original form - the present-day French centre-left daily Libération bears no real relation to the old broadly Maoist daily of the same name, even if Serge July kept the original title when he changed his politics and got rid of the original staff.
It is impossible to discuss the specific features that have marked Il Manifesto over the years without reference to events involving its founders in the period that preceded it. The group that set up the daily in 1971 had been expelled from the PCI in November 1969 as a result of their publication of a rather more theoretical monthly of the same name. The best-known members of this group were Rossana Rossanda, Luigi Pintor, Lucio Magri and Luciana Castellina. They had been associated with Pietro Ingrao’s left current within the PCI, which had been defeated at the 1966 PCI congress.
The Ingrao left was more attentive to changes in Italian society than either Giorgio Amendola’s right wing or Enrico Berlinguer’s centre current, and this made Rossanda’s grouping more open to both the student movement of 1967-68 and the upsurge of militancy in the northern factories in 1968-69, which culminated in the ‘Hot Autumn’. In addition, they wanted more inner-party democracy, and were very critical of the Soviet model, particularly in the light of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Although Ingrao and others who had voted for left positions at the 1966 congress to a large extent shared these views, Rossanda’s group was both a bit more extreme in its formulations and more willing to push the PCI’s rules against forming organised factions to the limit - and, in the event, beyond what the party leadership was prepared to tolerate.5
This background meant that the Il Manifesto group was the least hostile to the PCI of the far-left groups that emerged in the wake of the upsurges of 1967-69. Moreover, the background of its founders - many of whom had experience within the PCI dating back either to the World War II resistance or to the years immediately after the liberation - meant that they regarded Lotta Continua, Potere Operaio and Avanguardia Operaia, the three largest far-left groups, as prone to ultra-leftism and ‘extremism’. (They were not altogether wrong, particularly in relation to the first two.6)
Of course, the leaders of the Il Manifesto group were of an older generation than most of the other far-left chieftains, like Lotta Continua’s Adriano Sofri, which added to their relative caution and meant that their younger followers were far less prone to get involved in street violence. It is also worth adding that gender as well as age was important here. The leaders of Il Manifesto were not a male-dominated clique given to macho posturing, like those of Lotta Continua or Potere Operaio.7 Rossana Rossanda and Luciana Castellina were always central to the group, and over Il Manifesto’s 50-year existence made more of an impact that even their main male comrades, Luigi Pintor and Lucio Magri. Indeed, the group as a whole was much more responsive to the women’s movement than Lotta Continua was.8 For all these reasons, nobody associated with the Il Manifesto group was ever drawn in to the blind alley of terrorism in the course of the 1970s.9
However, whilst the Il Manifesto group (and the newspaper itself) was superior to most of the Italian far left in many respects, it had its weaknesses. The fact that the original core of the group was made up of intellectuals, many of whom had solidly bourgeois family backgrounds, had both advantages and disadvantages.
On the one hand, it meant that it produced a far better-written newspaper than, for example, Lotta Continua10 and one that on most questions (I will come to a very major exception shortly) was capable of constructing complex rational arguments, as opposed to crude sloganising. Even in Il Manifesto’s early years, its writers were willing to engage with topics of a cultural nature, such as Luis Bunuel’s film That obscure object of desire (in the issue of January 13 1978), or Elsa Morante’s novel La storia (July 6 1974). So Il Manifesto’s current extensive - perhaps too extensive for a daily paper - coverage of film, television, fiction and many varieties of non-fiction, as well as music of all kinds, is no latter-day retreat from the political into the cultural, but a logical continuation of its original approach.
On the other hand, the Il Manifesto group had far less influence on struggles in the major northern factories in 1968-69 than Lotta Continua, Potere Operaio or Avanguardia Operaia, and the newspaper (or large chunks of it) would often have been incomprehensible to working class readers, who in the 1970s might have been willing to read a copy of Lotta Continua (or, around 2000, a copy of the PRC daily Liberazione).
The issue on which the group and its newspaper went completely astray reflected not a tendency towards excessive intellectual rigour, but a total lack of it. Their major blind spot was a totally uncritical coverage of Mao’s China. Given their rejection of the autocratic Soviet model and their sympathy towards Alexander Dubcek and other subsequent eastern European heretics or dissidents, it is amazing that they completely refused to look Chinese reality in the face.
Probably the most nauseating issue the Il Manifesto collective ever produced was that of September 10 1976, whose seven-line front-page banner headline began: “Comrade Mao Tse-Tung is dead. He taught us that communism is the radical reversal of the history based on egoism and exploitation ...” Rossanda’s lead article in that issue argued that Mao was greater than Lenin, and that his intellectual contribution could only be compared to Marx himself. Whilst the group’s misreading of the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a spontaneous, anti-authoritarian, anti-bureaucratic, positively libertarian upsurge, comparable to May 1968, was widely shared on the Italian and indeed western European and North American far left at the end of the 1960s, some among their contemporaries were beginning to have some doubts by 1976.
More to the point, one might have imagined that a group so impressed by the struggles of the Cubans and Vietnamese might have noticed the extent to which Chinese foreign policy from 1971-72 onwards prioritised forging an alliance with US imperialism and its regional allies such as Pakistan, often at the expense of Asian revolutionaries inspired by Mao, such as the Sri Lankan JVP (People’s Liberation Front), or the more leftist elements who initially had some weight in the Bangladeshi liberation movement.11
Instead, Rossanda’s lead article on February 19 1972, entitled ‘Nixon in China’, absurdly asserted that China had made absolutely no concessions to the Americans, who were allegedly about to abandon support for Taiwan (or ‘Formosa’, as she described it - a neo-colonial usage that hardly suggested a profound grasp of China’s semi-colonial status before the 1949 revolution), weaken their links with Japan and so on. The article also contained a virulent attack on “Soviet imperialism” in Asia, and repeatedly suggested that the Chinese regime was the best ally of the Vietnamese in their protracted war against the Americans - something which was already becoming a little doubtful, to say the least.12
I would like to end this discussion of Il Manifesto’s half-century by emphasising that, whatever my criticisms of Rossanda’s views on China, without her unstinting commitment to the paper and the deep admiration she inspired in successive generations of journalists, there would have been no Italian “communist daily” being published in the unfavourable circumstances of 2021. It is very sad that, unlike the slightly younger Castellina, Rossanda (1924-2020) did not live quite long enough to celebrate the half-century of the paper that these two remarkable women both helped to found.
For a relatively short period between 1976 and 1978, it replaced this with the words ‘Unità proletaria per il comunismo’ (‘Proletarian unity for communism’), thus formally aligning itself with the Partito di Unità Proletaria per il Comunismo (PdUP), a party whose leadership was drawn from amongst the founders of Il Manifesto. After a split in the PdUP, the newspaper’s editorial collective, dominated by Rossana Rossanda, broke its formal links, and reverted to using the original subtitle.↩︎
It should be obvious that the Soviet Union would not have given a single kopek to a newspaper which denounced the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia in such strong terms, even if Brezhnev were prepared to subsidise the PCI until 1980, despite the latter’s (initially milder) criticisms of the Soviet leadership. However, it needs to be stressed that Il Manifesto’s 1970s enthusiasm for Maoist China was not a product of Chinese financial assistance.↩︎
Because of its status as a cooperative, it has received a fairly minimal amount in subsidies from the Italian state - a subsidy which in recent years the rightwing Five Star Movement (M5S) has persistently sought to abolish.↩︎
Whilst the paper quite consciously, and very correctly, promotes debate on the left, and often carries articles which do not reflect the views of its editorial collective, it is noticeable that many recent contributions seem to argue in favour of forming what would in effect be a strong left social democratic/ecological component within a centre-left electoral coalition: ie, a coalition led by the Partito Democratico (PD), even though the current editor, Norma Rangeri, often describes the PD as a “centrist” rather than ‘left’ party.↩︎
Enrico Berlinguer tried to maintain some sort of dialogue with the dissidents, and even got the group to keep the first issue of the monthly hidden in a warehouse for some weeks, in order to avoid worsening his negotiating position at the forthcoming meeting with the Soviet leadership, in which he wanted to defend dissident Czech leader Alexander Dubcek’s views. He is also believed to have called a halt to L’Unità’s initial response to the publication of Il Manifesto in 1971, which was to insinuate that the paper was being financed by bourgeois anti-communists - Berlinguer took the view that it was possible to attack their politics intellectually without descending into slander.↩︎
The major component of Democrazia Proletaria, the most serious far-left organisation of the 1980s, came from Avanguardia Operaia and, whilst there were very occasional instances in the 1970s of Avanguardia Operaia militants engaging in unprovoked physical attacks on neo-fascists, there was no statistically significant drift of former members towards terrorism - in sharp contrast to Potere Operaio and, to a lesser extent, Lotta Continua.↩︎
I am aware that some women associated with Potere Operaio before its official dissolution in 1973 have gained a latter-day fame in the English-speaking world, but I would argue that this was in the context of the rather marginal Wages for Housework campaign, rather than the epic struggles around divorce or abortion, which were so central to the politics of women like Rossanda and Castellina.↩︎
The chaotic collapse of Lotta Continua was in part due to the anger of its female members towards the patriarchal attitudes of its male leadership: eg, their intense hostility towards women-only demonstrations in favour of legalising abortion.↩︎
Nonetheless, it is impossible to gloss over the subsequent role Rossanda and the female colleagues played in compiling a book based on interviews with imprisoned Brigate Rosse (BR) leader Mario Moretti in the 1990s. This allowed him to propound a self-serving, heroic and mythical view of the BR - particularly in relation to Aldo Moro’s tragic end, in which the BR were in reality tools of Washington and P2 conspirators at the heart of the Italian state apparatus.↩︎
Gad Lerner, who in his youth was a journalist on Lotta Continua, admitted, in his contribution to Il Manifesto’s 50th anniversary issue, that he had always thought that Manifesto was better written than the newspaper that his own comrades were producing.↩︎
The 1971 JVP uprising in Sri Lanka was crushed by a government backed by China. The leftists in the Bangladeshi liberation movement were completely marginalised by the mainstream secular nationalist Awami League, once it became clear that only India’s Congress Government was willing to protect the poorly armed Bengali masses against genocidal attacks by the well-equipped West Pakistani army and their consistently murderous Jamaati-i-Islami collaborators. Chinese foreign policy also weakened the Naxalite insurgency in West Bengal - another movement inspired by Mao’s writings.↩︎
If some comrades think that I am being unkind in drawing so much attention to Rossanda’s stance in 1972 or 1976, I have to point out that her comments about Mao’s China in her much later autobiography La ragazza del secolo scorso showed no willingness to make any real reassessment.↩︎