Memoirs of a loyal oppositionist

Rossana Rossanda (translated by Romy Clark Giuliani) The comrade from Milan Verso 2010, pp384,

Rossana Rossanda - still active at 87 - has been one of the most significant female political figures of 20th century Italy. For many years she was the dominant figure within the editorial team that produced the leftwing daily Il Manifesto, a newspaper that has survived until the present day, albeit often very precariously in financial terms, demonstrating a continuity unparalleled elsewhere in Europe - where the French centre-left daily Libération bears no resemblance to the Maoist ancestor whose title it still bears.

Given the marginalisation of women within Italian political life in general and within the upper reaches of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) in particular, one is bound to wonder whether Rossanda’s lifelong radicalism was linked to a discomfort with the traditional roles of wife and mother assigned to Italian women of her generation. She is childless and left her husband in 1964, although her lifelong partnership with KS Karol, which began fairly soon after her separation from Rodolfo Banfi, might be seen as a marriage in all but name. Whilst some might be tempted to draw parallels between Rossanda and both Luciana Castellina and Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, two other prominent female communist intellectuals who broke with the PCI at the end of the 1960s, Rossanda, unlike Castellina, never rejoined the party and, unlike Macciocchi, never abandoned communism for some variant of social democracy. She remains a communist, as she emphasises in the preface to this autobiography, rehearsing other people’s objections to her stance: “Why do you say you are a communist? What do you mean, when you have no party, no position, when you have lost the newspaper that you helped found? Is it an illusion you cling to, because you are stubborn or stuck in the past?” (p1).

Rossanda makes a number of passing references to the prevalence of machismo within the political culture of the PCI leadership group. For example, she observes that on the party leadership “machismo ruled and women tore one another to bits as usual over the same man and there were no normal couples to be found …” (p131). Rossanda’s memoir has a certain old-fashioned reticence, so by and large she does not name names apart from Giancarlo Pajetta, of whom she remarks: “He used to tease Amendola and Ingrao for their fidelity; he was a macho show-off like most men in those days, but after the death of his beloved mother, Elvira, he behaved like a randy stray dog” (p223).

Nonetheless, despite these trenchant criticisms of most leading PCI men, she seems rather ambivalent about the feminist movement and never prioritises gender in her political thinking in the way Macciocchi did. Indeed Rossanda remarks: “… when, straight after the 1953 elections, the party tried to reassign me to political work among women, I saw it as an act of spite” (p146) and adds: “These militant women … bored me to death” (pp146-47). However, she had no patience for the party’s reluctance to confront the Catholic church over either divorce or abortion and her role in organising a Convention on the Family in 1964 aroused much antagonism from the PCI hierarchy: “The leadership sent Emilio Sereni, Nilde Jotti and maybe Marisa Rodano - I don’t remember - to challenge the comrades, mainly Luciana Castellina and me, who were intent on destroying the family, the basic unit of society” (p242).

In the light of this rather contradictory and ambivalent attitude that combined hostility to machismo and to Catholic conceptions of the family with an indifferent or hostile attitude towards women organising separately, it is hard to gauge to what extent Rossanda’s ultimate willingness, in 1969, to challenge the party hierarchy was primarily a matter of gender or of political generations (the main male figure associated with the new, anti-Stalinist, left current in the party, the older Pietro Ingrao, drew back after 1966). The English translation of her autobiography has the title The comrade from Milan, which an attentive reader will see is a reference to a remark made by PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti at a central committee meeting in 1964 - disapproving of her political stance, he affected to have forgotten her name (p249). However, the original Italian edition had the title La ragazza del secolo scorso (The girl of the last century), which could be interpreted as a decision by the author herself to place greater emphasis on her gender.

Class origins

Rossanda’s entry into the communist movement cannot be attributed to her class origins, as her family was clearly bourgeois. As she puts it, “I didn’t discover communism at home, that’s for sure; or politics either” (p3). Whilst this was less unusual amongst leading figures in the Italian party than amongst, say, their French or British equivalents, it is not without significance.

Rossanda’s background was not working class or peasant - indeed her family were originally rather wealthy, although the impact of the 1929 Wall Street crash seems to have led to her father’s bankruptcy and the sale of their substantial villa in what is now Croatia. Both her parents had to take paid employment, leaving her and her sister in Venice in the care of an aunt for some years. It is also worth noting that none of her family were leftwingers or even committed anti-fascists - although they do not seem, on the evidence of her own account, to have been enthusiastic fascists either. Her political radicalisation came through her involvement in the resistance in the autumn of 1943 and she was drawn to communism by Antonio Banfi, a university professor, whose teaching on art history had already impressed her in her apolitical years studying in Milan in 1941-42 and whose son she eventually married.

This essentially patriotic and popular frontist initiation into the party is probably the explanation for the stance she takes - even in retrospect and long after breaking with the party in a leftward direction - over the resistance and its immediate aftermath, essentially dismissing the revolutionary potential of the years between 1943 and 1948. This can be seen in comments like: “From the events that followed after 1945, and especially in 1947, I still draw an image of working class struggle at its purest in a non-revolutionary phase, shackled by powerful legal and international constraints” (p105). She clearly sided with Togliatti in his opposition to armed struggle against Pietro Secchia, for whom she has little or no sympathy. However, her comment, “… whether Secchia nurtured insurrectional tendencies has been more claimed than demonstrated” (p148), seems an attempt to minimise the tensions that existed in the party before the late 1960s, when she espoused a very different variety of dissidence.

Whilst Rossanda’s emphasis on the differences between Milanese and Roman communism, often used as synonyms for northern and southern communism, is in many ways quite illuminating and gives at least a partial explanation of why the central leadership of the party was so slow in coming to terms with the changes in the Italian economy and society between the late 1940s and the late 1960s, she is often, probably as a consequence of her own intellectual formation, more interested in cultural questions than political ones. Although Togliatti’s old-fashioned and dogmatic approach towards artistic, literary and cultural matters caused her understandable irritation, it was by no means the worst of his faults.

The account that Rossanda provides us with of the events of 1956 is perhaps as notable for what it does not mention - Togliatti’s enthusiastic support for the Russian invasion of Hungary in November 1956, a course of action he had actually urged on Khrushchev - as for what it does: Togliatti’s Nuovi Argomenti interview, whose arguments she compares with Isaac Deutscher’s, probably forgetting the classically Stalinist conspiracy theory about 1930s ‘Trotskyite’ murderers to be found within it. 1956 undoubtedly shook her faith in the PCI - she claims: “My hair turned grey then - it’s true: it really does happen. I was 32 years old” (p156). But she did not leave the party or publicly express dissent within it.

Given her relative youth and intellectual rather than proletarian or peasant background, one is bound to make comparisons with the reactions of figures like Edward Thompson or John Saville to these events. Whilst it may seem rather harsh to ascribe her obstinate loyalty to the party to the fact that she was a full-time employee of the PCI from 1947 to 1969, it is quite apparent that the intellectual circles in which she moved, often as a result of performing various cultural roles for the party, meant that there was no question of her being ignorant of the critiques of Stalinism and accounts of the worst features of the Soviet Union. These were being advanced by a wide spectrum of authors, such as “the likeable Koestler and the unlikeable Orwell” (p159) - an assessment of character that may lead some to question her judgement.

Left shift

Rossanda first got to know Togliatti personally in 1958, when she was brought onto the editorial board of the party journal, Rinascita, and was part of a younger generation that Togliatti promoted in a bid to isolate and marginalise most of his own contemporaries in the leadership. Whilst her portrait of Togliatti in his last years is not totally devoid of criticism, it is far more sympathetic than any objective appraisal of his conduct could justify. Any real shift by Rossanda to a more wholeheartedly critical position only came after Togliatti’s death. Whilst, as her text makes apparent, this has to be seen in the context of the struggle between Giorgio Amendola on the right, who was veering towards social democracy, and Pietro Ingrao on the left, who put forward a rather more original position in PCI terms that was sympathetic to social movements and critical of the Soviet Union, one is bound to wonder if her relationship with KS Karol - who had left Poland for France in the late 1940s and experienced the Soviet Union at first hand during World War II - may have played more of a role than she chooses to admit.

Whether Rossanda and her allies would have been any more successful in their efforts to pull the PCI leftwards if they had showed more determination and less loyalty to the party’s rules is hard to judge, but it seems unlikely that their opponents on the right and centre of the party ever showed any of the same scruples about engaging in factionalism. A failure to organise and recruit made the Manifesto group’s ultimate expulsion a foregone conclusion, even if we assume Rossanda is right in believing, on the basis of a personal conversation with national secretary Enrico Berlinguer, that he was not anxious to purge them.

Whilst Rossanda and the Manifesto group took up the fight as a result of the upsurge amongst first Italian students and then Italian workers in the 1967-69 period, her recollections do not suggest that she had a firm grasp of these developments outside the PCI. Numerous other accounts indicate that operaista (workerist) ideas originating from students or older intellectuals had more impact on some big northern factories than she seems willing to accept, trapped as she is in a framework that emphasises the gulf between workers and students as a result of some, albeit brief, personal experience of French events.

Her vivid first-hand accounts of journeys to Cuba in 1967 and Paris in late May 1968 are of considerable historical interest, even if the claim that Fidel Castro in 1967 was unaware that Stalin had organised Trotsky’s assassination (p295) beggars belief - although there is no reason to doubt Rossanda’s own sincerity in making it, as opposed to Castro’s in the conversation she reports. Whilst her descriptions and analyses of Cuba and Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, whatever their defects in terms of detail, show a clear intellectual independence and a willingness to engage with reality, sadly when it comes to the Chinese Cultural Revolution - which she, like the rather younger and less well informed Italian student movement, misunderstood at the time - she, like the Bourbons in 1815, had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. According to Rossanda the PCI “saw the Cultural Revolution simply as a power struggle among the leadership of the CCP: that is, not important. Whereas, whether you liked it or not, the Cultural Revolution once more raised the question, this time violently, of the nature of revolution, a question that had been waiting for an answer for some time from the left in the west. The films of Godard and Bellocchio had more to say about it than any central committee meeting” (p288). Here, one has to admit, the PCI Central Committee did get it right and one is puzzled how an opponent of Zhdanovism and socialist realism, easily disgusted by the paintings of Renato Guttoso, still seems to find nothing untoward in the Red Guards’ grotesque and murderous variant of cultural criticism, a variant which would have had little patience with the films of Godard, a director whose fate, had he lived in China in the late 1960s, is not hard to envisage.

Romy Clark Giuliani’s translation is generally admirable and performs a considerable service to Anglophone readers interested in the history of 20th century Italian communism. However, the derogatory Stalinist epithet ‘Trotskyite’ is used throughout the text (for example, in an otherwise friendly reference to the “Trotskyite musicologist Rognoni” on p137) and not just where it might be appropriate - in other words, where a Soviet or other orthodox communist is accusing some heretic, whether rightly or wrongly, of Trotskyism. Since there is no corresponding word in Italian, this is very odd indeed (and particularly in a text produced by Verso, a publishing house whose founders, in the days when it was called New Left Books, were originally much closer to Trotskyism than to Stalinism).

Whilst very occasionally Giuliani indicates, in a footnote, some inaccuracy in Rossanda’s recollections, quite a number of incorrect dates for events, such as the Nazi-Soviet pact or the assassination attempt on Togliatti, are left unchallenged. Rossanda says at the beginning of her text: “… my memory is arthritic” (p1), but it is arguable that, when it comes to events that are clearly in the public sphere, such tact on the translator’s part may do a disservice to readers unfamiliar with modern Italian history or that of the communist movement. However, the glossary will prove very useful to those unfamiliar with the history of the period, filling in the background on a wide variety of personages whom Rossanda mentions in passing. But it is a bit unfortunate that the leftwing socialist, Riccardo Lombardi, has been confused with a fiercely reactionary priest with the same surname!